BOOK REVIEW: Iphigenia in Aulis Adapted by Edward Einhorn [from Euripides]

Iphigenia in Aulis: The Age of Bronze EditionIphigenia in Aulis: The Age of Bronze Edition by Edward Einhorn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This illustrated play is an adaptation of Euripides’ drama of the same name. The title character, Iphigenia, is the daughter of King Agememnon and she’s lured to Aulis by her father to be a human sacrifice, but under the fraudulent claim that she’s to be married to Achilles. [Because, you know, people tend to not show up if you invite them to be murdered, but they’re much more amenable if you invite them to marry a hunky half-god.]

It’s a simple and straightforward story, but one that is never-the-less evocative and dramatic. Agememnon’s will to kill his daughter falters for a time and when his wife, Klytemnestra, scores Achilles’ support for the cause of saving her daughter, it’s unclear how things will unfold. It’s a story that encourages one to reflect upon fate and the virtue of sacrifice, while showing that different chains of causality applied to the same event can radically alter the perception of justness. When Iphigenia’s death is seen as the means to get back Helen (who eloped with Paris to Troy,) it’s vile and despicable. However, when it is viewed as the means to get the fleet moving in order to restore the honor of those assembled nations pledged to fight, that’s a different matter.

I found this play to be compelling and well worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway

The Torrents of SpringThe Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is atypical of Hemingway’s work in several ways. It’s one of his earlier works of fiction, so it may stand to reason that his style and genre preferences weren’t yet set. The book parodies certain works and authors and satirizes the conceits and affectations seen in some popular writers of the day. Not that Hemingway’s work is otherwise devoid of humor, but it rarely plays the central role that it does herein. The story also has plot points that feel surreal in their absurdity, which is a variation from Hemingway’s usual dramatic realism. The novella also features a number of fourth wall breaks in the form of “Notes to the Reader.”

The book combines two storylines, each featuring a different worker at a pump factory in a Michigan town. Scripps O’Neill is a writer who comes to town after wandering away from his home down a train line after his wife left him. Scripps goes native in the town, getting a job at the pump factory and marrying a local woman, but he’s perpetually restless. Yogi Johnson is already an experienced worker when Scripps arrives, and he’s shaped by his experience in World War I, which other characters continually question amongst themselves. He ends up wandering out of town down the train tracks in a way that echoes Scripps’ arrival.

The book is funny and quirky and oddly engaging. Some of the humor would probably land better for those familiar with the pretentious writers that were the book’s target, but even if one isn’t familiar with the literature of the era, one will come away with an understanding of how Hemingway viewed said writers.

I enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it for readers of American Literature.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest HemingwayThe Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hemingway was widely regarded as a master of short fiction, and for good reason. This book collects published and previously unpublished short stories into one volume. While the collection prominently features Hemingway’s obsessions with safari, war, and (to a lesser degree) bullfighting, it actually covers a lot of ground from what might today be called flash fiction to almost novella length pieces, from grim and gritty tales of violence to quiet stories of being and everyday life, and from crime in the big city to life in rural America.

The complete collection offers all the well-anthologized pieces, such as: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “The Killers,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but it also presents some exceptional stories that may have slipped past readers. Some of my favorites include: “The Last Good Country” (about a young man and his sister on the lam from the game warden,) “The Butterfly and the Tank,” (a drunk gets a bit too merry among men of violence,) and “The Strange Country” (Hemingway’s version of “Lolita.”)

The book is arranged into three sections. The first is “The First Forty-Nine,” a collection that gathered all of Hemingway’s fiction published to that point. The second section consists of the fourteen pieces published after “The First Forty-Nine” came out. The final section is seven unpublished stories, a few of which are connected by virtue of the fact that they were meant to be part of a novel that was never completed because of Hemingway’s untimely demise.

If you enjoy short fiction, this collection is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Animals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi

Animals in Our DaysAnimals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

Besides being animal-themed or animal-centric to varying degrees, there are a couple of other features common to the stories in this translated collection from Egyptian author, Mohamed Makhzangi. First, it’s truly international in terms of settings. In addition to stories that take place closer to the author’s (i.e. in the Middle East,) there are tales set in Bangkok, Jaipur, Windhoek, and undefined but evocative locales that all feel based on the author’s travels. Second, the stories tend to have a dreamy, surreal quality and / or speculative elements – i.e. they aren’t strictly realist, but more magical realist. At times, stories read like Kafka (e.g. “Brass Grasshoppers”) and at other times like a fairy tale (e.g. “White Bears / Black Bears.”) Where the stories vary is with respect to theme, from war to alienation to the interconnectedness of nature.

The translation by Chip Rossetti is highly readable, and the stories are well-crafted, engaging, and often thought-provoking. I’d recommend this for all readers of short fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Naked Lunch [the Restored Text] by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextNaked Lunch: The Restored Text by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This isn’t a novel so much as a series of heroin-fueled fever dreams. While that makes it sound incoherent and unreadable, there’s a great deal of visceral imagery and clever language in it. What there’s not is a thread that carries the reader through a series of events constituting a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like dystopian fiction, but that’s merely Beat-style lingo and heroin addict worldview applied to a combination of Burrough’s world and the surreal mind-space of the addict on a fix.

As is also true of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” if you’re a reader who needs a coherent story and the avoidance of experimental language, you probably won’t like this book. Furthermore, readers who’re uncomfortable with pornographic imagery will also find the book objectionable. However, if you enjoy books that are prose poem-like in their use of language and if you don’t mind the disjointed strangeness necessary to convey the addict’s mental experience, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book. It’s worth recognizing that what makes the book a challenging read is simultaneously what makes it such a masterpiece of the drug-addled experience. If it were more lucid, it’d be tepid and purposeless.

This is the restored text edition. This is one of the few cases in which I’d recommend reading all the backmatter. It includes some “outtakes” from the earliest drafts, but (more usefully) some essays by Burroughs that offer important insights. When one finishes this book, there’s a tendency to think, “What was that? What did I just read?” The appendices help one understand the book better. Here we read Burrough’s claim that he had no recollection of composing the original draft, and a later statement in which he clarifies that his earlier statement was an exaggeration – that he did have some memories of it.

I found this book to be an engrossing read. As I say, while it’s bizarre, outlandish, and frequently pornographic, it also lends insight into a state of mind that most of us – fortunately – will never experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ashtavakra Gita Trans. by Bart Marshall

Ashtavakra Gita: (bootleg version)Ashtavakra Gita: by Bart Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are many translations of this Hindu classic of Advaita Vedanda, a non-dualist school that teaches the oneness of all things and the illusory nature of the universe that we think we know. “The Song of Ashtavakra” explores self-realization and the path to liberation (i.e. Moksha.) [Ashtavakra was a sage with birth defects from which the name “8 angles” derives. Yoga practitioners will know the name from an arm balance pose that involves balancing the kinked body on bent arms in a manner that was apparently reminiscent of the look of this sage’s body.]

The translation that I read, one by Bart Marshall, is clearly written in readily understandable language. It’s presented as a series of short-form poems arranged into twenty chapters that also form a dialogue between Ashtavakra and Janaka. This version doesn’t contain commentary and analysis as some translations do. Because it’s both highly readable and inexpensively acquired, I’d recommend one give it a chance. If you later decide you’d benefit from commentary, you’ll not be at a loss by having read this version first.

As is common enough in such tracts, the book can be repetitive as it reiterates ideas like the need to avoid desire and aversion and the nature of oneness. That said, there were some quite powerful statements that genuinely expanded on the ideas of the work. (e.g. 18.100: “One of tranquil mind // seeks neither crowds nor wilderness. // He is the same wherever he goes.” Or 3.12 “Why should a person of steady mind, who sees the nothingness of objects, prefer one thing over another?”)

If you’re a student of philosophy or of yoga as a philosophy, I think this is well worth a thoughtful read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Mountain Poems Translated by Gary Snyder

Cold Mountain PoemsCold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection consists of twenty-four of the three-hundred-plus surviving poems by the Tang-era poet-hermit who went by the name “Cold Mountain” [i.e. Han-Shan.] This translation was produced by the Beat poet, Gary Snyder, and both the translation and the selection are informed by Snyder’s sensibilities and worldview. Snyder is known for nature-centric poetry infused with Buddhist and Native American sentiments, but, like other Beats (though far less than, say, Allen Ginsberg,) Snyder sometimes engages in social commentary. This makes Han-Shan’s body of work a fertile field because it, too, focuses heavily on the beauty and harshness of nature, is framed by Buddhist and Taoist perspectives, and occasionally interjects a societal rebuke. The poems are mostly octave (eight-line) poems which often follow the format of a “straight” sestet that sets up a “punchline” in the last couplet. [Not to suggest the poems are jokes, but they often present a clever twist or commentary at the end.]

Han-Shan’s poems focus heavily on his life as a hermit and the dichotomy of Cold Mountain (the locale) as both a harsh place to live and the only place for him. The Snyder selection focuses heavily on the appeal of nature and the living of a simple and natural life — as well as on the shunning of materialism.

Han-Shan is a mysterious figure, but what is known of him is intriguing. He is considered a mad saint by some, though most of what is known about the man comes from his surviving poems. (Some believe that the 313 known poems maybe only about half of what the hermit composed during the course of his life.)

Even if you’ve read one of the full collections (e.g. Red Pine’s,) you may find some unique insight and imagery in Snyder’s select translation. I’d highly recommend it.


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Enlightenment in Four Bits of Shakespearean Wisdom

If you’re looking to attain Enlightenment, you may have turned to someone like the Buddha or Epictetus for inspiration. But I’m here to tell you, if you can put these four pieces of Shakespearean wisdom into practice, you’ll have all you need to uplift your mind.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

william Shakespeare, Hamlet

Through Yoga, practitioners learn to cultivate their inner “dispassionate witness.” In our daily lives, we’re constantly attaching value judgements and labels to everything with which we come into contact (not to mention the things that we merely imagine.) As a result, we tend to see the world not as it is, but in an illusory form.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William shakespeare, julius caesar

In Psychology class, you may remember learning about the self-serving bias, a warped way of seeing the world in which one attributes difficulties and failures to external factors, while attributing successes and other positive outcomes to one’s own winning characteristics. Like Brutus, we need to learn to stop thinking of our experience of life as the sum of external events foisted upon us, and to realize that our experience is rooted in our minds and how we perceive and react to events.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

william shakespeare, as you like it

A quote from Hamlet also conveys the idea, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If you grasp this idea, you may become both humbler and more readily capable of discarding bad ideas in favor of good. It’s common to want to think of yourself as a master, but this leads only to arrogance and to being overly attached to ineffective ideas. Be like Socrates.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.

william shakespeare, julius caesar

Fears and anxieties lead people into lopsided calculations in which a risky decision is rated all downside. Those who see the world this way may end up living a milquetoast existence that’s loaded with regrets. No one is saying one should ignore all risks and always throw caution to the wind, but our emotions make better servants than masters. One needs to realize that giving into one’s anxieties has a cost, and that that cost should be weighed against what one will get out of an experience.

There it is: Enlightenment in four bits of Shakespearean wisdom.

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch

The Heart of American PoetryThe Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 19, 2022

This book presents forty poems from prominent American poets, interspersed with essays by Hirsch offering background on the poet, the poem, and how the poem reflects upon America. It’s a fine collection of poems, and a thoughtful discussion of them. There will be something new to most readers. While most of the poets are well-known and while there are a few highly anthologized poems: e.g. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Dickinson’s #479 [Because I Could Not Stop for Death,] and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there are many more off the beaten path selections to be discovered.

As for whether the selection captures the heart of American poetry, on that wouldn’t necessarily agree. That said, it’s presented as Hirsch’s personal selection; the pieces in it are great poems, and he has as much right to his views as anyone. The anthology does capture many elements of the American poetic voice. It does a fine job of capturing the many strains of dissent, critique, and resistance from the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Langston Hughes) to that of the indigenous peoples (e.g. Joy Harjo) to the Beats (e.g. Allen Ginsberg.) What Hirsch seems less comfortable with is the Whitmanian voice of affection and admiration for the country. In writing about Whitman and Frost, Hirsch makes comments about their lack of appeal to him, apparently their respective unbridled positivity and folksiness were found unbecoming of a poet. I felt the fact that Hirsch had to search out one of Whitman’s more angsty and dark compositions in order to be happy with Whitman’s inclusion was telling (Hirsch could hardly leave Whitman out and present the book as capturing the essence of American poetry.)

The anthology reflects much of the cultural and artistic diversity seen in America, but it eschews the middle America voice (i.e. 70% of the poems are from New Jersey and northward up the Atlantic coast, and while New York may be the country’s cultural and publishing capital, skilled poets from South of the Mason-Dixon and more than 150 miles from the Atlantic coast aren’t as much rare flukes as this anthology would suggest.)

I enjoyed reading this anthology, and I learned a great deal from the essays that went along with each poem. The book is definitely worth reading. Mopey Plath-loving New Yorkers are more likely to find it representative of the voice of American poetry than sanguine Whitman-loving Hoosiers, but it’s an enlightening read, either way.


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BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.


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