Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Odyssey

I got sucked into this story. About a third of the way through I was hiding it under the covers with a flashlight, staying up past my bedtime. And for once the discussion about authorship and possible oral composition didn't kill the story, but added to my admiration. This swashbuckling story and sublime language was most likely composed orally over several centuries and only later written down? I can't read in Greek, but the intricate narrative structure, composed of flashbacks and tales within the tale was definitely a unified construct - whoever finally wrote it down must have had a hand in the final presentation. I loved Fitzgerald's translation, as well - it is beautiful in itself, and much less wooden than Lattimore's (although I understand that Lattimore's is much closer to the Greek).

I loved Helen and Penelope - they had such powerful roles within their own household, and yet in the larger sphere were strangely powerless. Helen was witchy, godlike, and foreign. Penelope was crafty, and faithful, and distrustful - the female counterpart to Odysseus. The traditional double standard for men and women's behavior was infuriating as usual. I actually sympathize with Clymmenestra who is held up as the vilest of women - If my husband sacrificed our daughter for favorable winds to go to war, I'd kill him too.

I also enjoyed the gods in the story - and the contrast between say, Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon is hostile towards humans in general - and would prefer to stop all sea voyages; while Athena is the god of civilization, of craft, and is far more sympathetic towards humans in general. The gods are so human. I like how they aren't greatly involved, almost rooting from the sidelines for their favorites. I was reminded a little of the episode in Job, where God and the Devil make a bet on poor Job; only here, the god's don't struggle for allegiance, but for the success or failure of their favorites. Athena, in particular is interesting, for she has strict limits on how far she will intervene, even for her favorites. She will weight the dice, or help plan a ruse, but refuses to take actual part in the fray. The heroes in the story are independent actors and not merely pawns. The ending was pretty ruthless - but it actually stopped short of total carnage. I never realized how much Dante borrowed from Homer - and even Shakespeare's plots echo Homer's with improbable disguises and sleep potions (did he have access to Homer, or was this just the narrative tradition?)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A book to lock yoursef in the bathroom with and read all at once. Each chapter is is numbered in cosecutive primes. It's written in the voice of an autistic child and manages not to be overly sentimental or touching. It still pings on the guilty pleasures scale for being remotely heartwarming, but screw pretension, it's a good story.

Monday, September 04, 2006

J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead

Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philidelphia in 1793. You know, I've always been fascinated by plagues since my Sunday school days, when I pronounced the word like it's spelled and asked questions like: what kind of boils did the Egyptians get, anyway? So when I was assigned this book for my medical history class I jumped into it. Anyway, Powell alternates between a dry, factual tone and sensationalism, relying heavily on contemporary newspaper articles and correspondence. The background of the epidemic is fascinating, especially because in 1793 Philidelphia was the nation's capital, and therefore a political and social center. The small details included about civic life, commerce, newspapers, the Quaker church, and household routine are riveting.

Powell's "hero" or at least major protagonist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is a problematic figure. There was a feud between medical practitioners about proper treatment for yellow fever victims - the "French method" consisting of wine, baths, and gentle purges against Dr. Rush's discovery of drastic bleeding and mercury purges. Rush was popularly regarded as a hero for his devotion, courage, and confidence in treatment; although some physicians at that time rightly regarded his treatments as dangerous. He gave great hope to his patients: telling them "You have nothing but a yellow fever," and did much to quell the panic in Philidelphia. However, it is amazing that his patients survived his "heroic" bloodlettings, because he and his contemporaries thought humans had twice their actual blood volume, and sometimes prescribed bleeding of more blood than the patient could actually contain. He was so enchanted by his theory, that "it never occurred to him that he might be wrong," even more, he considered physicians that did not follow his treatment guilty of murder.

Yellow fever is itself very interesting, a viral disease transmitted by a mosquito vector. Outbreaks continue in Africa, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. In non-immune populations outbreaks are very severe. There is now a vaccine, but there is still no cure, and only supportive treatment. It causes jaundice, bloody vomit, headaches, and seizures as well as fever.

(We also read excerpts from John Kelly's The Great Mortality about the black plague which was both infuriatingly and interestingly voiced, and as soon as I can rustle up a copy I'm going to read it and write about all of Kelly's mistakes.)