Archive for August, 2010

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

August 30, 2010 2 comments

Just completed Lord of the Flies by William Golding which I vaguely remember reading when I was in high school.  My recollection was that I had found the book interesting, but not wildly so, and that I was a bit startled by the idea that supposedly civilized human beings would devolve into an anarchist, thrill-for-the moment state.

Now in my early 40s, I’m not quite so naive.

The theme itself was still fascinating.  I thought perhaps the execution was a bit heavy-handed, though.  Golding tries too hard to include symbols and metaphors rather than allowing them to more naturally and more subtly unfold.

I found the reading to be rather a difficult slog, perhaps due to my own reading laziness.  Too much description for me.  I also had a hard time trying to determine who was speaking in much of the dialogue.

While I’ll never forget the last two or three pages, I found it strange that I completely mis-remember most of the events in the last half of the book.  I didn’t recall Simon as a character at all and I seemed to have merged Simon’s and Piggy’s fate in my memory.

One poignant comment was made at the end of the novel where the naval officer mistakes the paint and the hunt for the more idyllic life in The Coral Island, a 19th Century novel by R.M. Ballantyne, which I loved as a kid.  (Ah, the breadfruit tree!)

I know. Jolly good show. Like The Coral Island.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was an unusual treat; I really didn’t know what to expect when I chose to read it next from the Essential Man’s Library listing.

I found much of the work to be surprisingly folksy and witty in tone.  And, it is certainly different from biographies written today both in its relative informality and its more episodic nature, rather than attempting to fill in periods of Franklin’s entire life.  In fact, some of the most “famous” stories today, such as flying the kite in a thunderstorm are merely glossed over.  Franklin’s work on the formative documents of the American founding and the Revolution aren’t even mentioned (it appears that the autobiographical work was left uncompleted).

Franklin was certainly a charismatic, creative, and energetic man.  In spite of his forethought (lending libraries, firefighter unions, scientific method, etc), he was also a product of his time.  For example, although he argues that women should be educated, he asserts that this would permit a widow to keep her husband’s business running until her son could take over.  Becoming an abolitionist later in life, he repeats a bawdy joke about slavery and “blacking” the Quakers.

Perhaps the most insightful quote I read was:

If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.

I am considering having this quotation printed up and posted near my computer at work to remind me not to be inflexible, but to consider openly and fully what others tell me, and then make an informed decision.

For me, the earlier portions of the book were more interesting than the rather tedious legislative machinations and the building of a militia stockade in the third and fourth sections.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Urchin of the Riding Stars by M.I. McAllister

Every so often, I need to read a more lighthearted book, a book that doesn’t necessarily include complex conceits (paradoxes, hard core scientific principles) or Machiavellian intrigues.  Sometimes, I just need to read about squirrels.

Urchin of the Riding Stars is one of those books.  This is the first of several adventures of “The Mistmantle Chronicles” (and the only one I have read so far).

Mistmantle is an island surrounded by a mysterious mist which prevents those creatures who leave it from ever returning in the same manner.  The island inhabitants are squirrels, moles, otters, and hedgehogs.  The animals retain most of characteristics of their species but do have a level of civilization and culture.  The royal court lives in a castle (one of the few buildings specifically mentioned since most of the commoners seem to live in tunnels and burrows) filled with tapestries, called “threadings” by the animals.  The captains of the guard wear cloaks and carry swords and daggers.  Small merchant vessels trade with other parts of the kingdom.  However, writing is unknown, so verbal instructions are given and are sometimes reinforced by a dried leaf imprinted with the paw print of the official.

Throughout the book is the optimism and cheerfulness of Urchin, a foundling squirrel who ultimately become a page to one of the captains.  One of the most memorable images is when Urchin is asked to deliver a message and, instead of using the stairs, he hops out of the nearest window, scurries up the side of the castle, and back in through a window on another floor.  The other image is of “Hope”, an extremely near-sighted hedgehog whose endearing qualities of innocence, bravery, and sheer cuteness make him the nursery’s pet.

Unfortunately, the idyllic kingdom has begun to rot from within.  A twisted captain has influenced the hedgehog king (the kingship rotates between the species when the line fails) through drugged wine and despair and intends to rule the kingdom with an iron fist.

The book is a wonderful mix of joyful fun but surprising sadness and violence.  Although much of the violence is done somewhat “off-stage”, there are enough deaths and sad partings to make this more than just a children’s book.

I listened to the audio version performed by Andrew Sachs, whose narrative and character voices are well suited to the genre.

4 1/2 stars out of 5.

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The Trojan War: A New History

As I was reading The Odyssey, I ran across The Trojan War: A New History by Barry Strauss at the local bookstore.  Paging through the first few chapters, I was fascinated by the descriptions of other minor epic poems about the Trojan War and that the city of Troy was associated with the Bronze Age Anatolian culture rather than Greek.

Unfortunately, many of the most interesting and meaty sections of the book were in the introduction and early chapters.

I think the problem I had was that the author attempted to validate the writings of Homer and other traditions based on manuscripts, artifacts, and inscriptions of other Bronze Age peoples.  Perhaps I was hoping for too much:  evidence from the site of Troy itself.

While the anecdotes of the Hittites, Assyrians, and Egyptians (for example) were interesting in themselves, I was a little skeptical that their cultures were complete analogues.  Also, the examples that were used covered perhaps 400 years around the currently assumed date of the war.

Later sections become a rehash of The Iliad itself, summarizing the main action and then inserting a comment or two about the likely armor used or how the conscripted commoners would have been treated in the Greek army.  My interest in the other non-Homeric epics was dashed by the statement about two-thirds into the book:

“Only sketchy summaries and a few quotations survive from the Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Iliad, Sack of Ilium, and The Returns.”

I don’t want to give the impression that the book was all bad, but it seemed a bit like a thesis where the student can’t seem to find enough evidence so they brought in somewhat related information and then widened the margins of the paper.

2 1/2 stars out of 5

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The Odyssey by Homer

I thought I had read The Odyssey when I was in high school.  Having just finished it, I realize that I knew the plot and the various exciting adventures of Odysseus from reading tons of mythology when I was a kid, but I had never actually read the epic itself.

The version I listened to was translated by Robert Fagles (who was the translator for the Aeneid we used in my Latin language class) and was read by Ian McKellen.  The translation was smooth and very readable, but yet still seemed to have the classical verse feel.  I generally dislike reading these classics in verse form since the line breaks interrupt the flow of the thought for me; it is intensely worse if in rhyming verse (which this was not).  But having GANDALF read the lines, easily tripping from his tongue, was wonderful.

Back to the content, a few thoughts:

  • The Telemachus’ frame story was much more rich and lengthy than I had imagined.
  • Many times, Homer alludes to the actions of the gods and goddesses in ways that could easily be attributed to chance, to natural events, and to “inspiration”.  I found this to be very charming.  I was also  intrigued by the repeated references to Athena transforming Odysseus, Laertes, and Telemachus into taller, more robust, more noble men.
  • One tiresome image was the repetition the break of day as “Dawn with her rosy fingers”.  I suppose that this might be a literary devise when reciting the epic, but its unvarying wording became grating a bit.
  • The actual adventures were rather short episodes in the story:  Calypso, Circe, the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops Polyphemus, the winds of Aeolus, the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis.  The vast share of the story is about Telemachus’s search for news of his father and the events after Odysseus lands on his home shores of Ithaca.
  • My image of Odysseus’ vaunted loyalty to his wife and his neverending desire to return to her was a bit tarnished, since he clearly has a physical relationship with Calypso and Circe (albeit pressed to it by the power of these women) and his untrusting testing of Penelope.
  • I was enthralled by the cast of commoners (the pig herder, the housekeeper) who truly exemplify some of the most noble character in the book.  I wonder if this was unusual for the time period?
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