Friday, July 29, 2016

Poetry Friday: The Odyssey

My daughter and I have been reading the Odyssey together this summer,  and we finished it yesterday.  Just as the Iliad is mostly about all the different ways to get killed in battle, the Odyssey, we learned, is mostly about eating sides of meat.  Until the end, that is, when Odysseus kills the suitors and piles up all their corpses - then it becomes about all the different ways to get killed in battle, just like the Iliad.

Seriously, though, we really enjoyed reading this 24-book poem aloud to each other.  I picked a part to share with you, and I think it's appropriate because it's about stories.  Odysseus is constantly telling stories, most of them largely untrue, but here, he's in Alcinous' court, listening to the bard entertaining the dinner guests (as they eat sides of meat), and it turns out the story is about him, even though Alcinous and the other guests don't know who Odysseus is, just that he's a stranger they are taking in.

We read from the Fagles translation, and this is Book 8, lines 559-600.

Stirred now by the Muse, the bard launched out
in a fine blaze of song, starting at just the point
where the main Achaean force, setting their camps afire,
had boarded the oarswept ships and sailed for home
but famed Odysseus' men already crouched in hiding -
in the heart of Troy's assembly - dark in that horse
the Trojans dragged themselves to the city heights.
Now it stood there, looming...
and round its bulk the Trojans sat debating,
clashing, days on end.  Three plans split their ranks:
either to hack open the hollow vault with ruthless bronze
or let it stand - a glorious offering made to pacify the gods -
and that, that final plan, was bound to win the day.
For Troy was fated to perish once the city lodged
inside her walls the monstrous wooden horse
where the prime of Argive power lay in wait
with death and slaughter bearing down on Troy.
And he sang how troops of Achaeans broke from cover,
streaming out of the horse's hollow flanks to plunder Troy -
he sang how left and right they ravaged the steep city,
sang how Odysseus marched right up to Deiphobus' house
like the god of war on attack with diehard Menelaus.
There, he sang, Odysseus fought the grimmest fight
he had ever braved but he won through at last,
thanks to Athena's superhuman power.

That was the song the famous harper sang
but great Odysseus melted into tears,
running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks...
as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
she clings for dear life, screams and shrills -
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain,
and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks.
So from Odysseus' eyes ran tears of heartbreak now,
But his weeping went unremarked by all the others;
only Alcinous, sitting close beside him,
noticed his guest's tears.

Incidentally, the bard in this scene is blind, and I wonder if Homer was writing about himself.  That would be kind of meta - Homer the bard writing about Odysseus listening to a bard singing about Odysseus.  Even though both the Iliad and the Odyssey are in many ways very macho, it's always interesting to me how in tune Homer is to the fate of women in war (and what theme could be more modern?).  Homer constantly reminds us that everyone has a story.

Here's today's roundup.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Books to Cheer You Up

Here are some books that cheer me up when I'm sad.  And here are some that Modern Mrs. Darcy recommends.

What do you read when you're feeling down?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Reading Update

Book #92 of this year was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, an entertaining novel about Hollywood and The Hotel Adequate View on a tiny Italian island.

Book #93 was Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, by Jen Pollock Michel.  "We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were."

Book #94 was Running from a Crazy Man (and Other Adventures Traveling with Jesus), by Lori Stanley Roeleveld.  Each of these essays ends with an invitation to "Ponder the Perplexities," with no attempt to wrap things up neatly.  "Eloquent prose can't cover a heart of stone.  As inconvenient as it is to have a heart of flesh that bleeds and breaks, the sound it makes reaches the throne of heaven.  That is prayer."

Book #95 was Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, a steampunk retelling of World War One.  I can imagine the concept of this YA title appealing to my students, but the telling of it didn't always hold my interest.

Book #96 was Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  Warning: it's about a plane crash.  The crash happens a few pages in, and we spend the rest of the book learning about all the people involved and, ultimately, why it happened.

Book #97 was Cashelmara, by Susan Howatch, a retelling of the story of the Plantagenets, but set in nineteenth century Ireland.  I'm a big Howatch fan, but mostly of her Starbridge novels.  This book has many of the same elements: larger than life characters whom we grow to know deeply, multiple points of view, and endless drama.

Book #98 was another Susan Howatch title, The Rich are Different.

Book #99 was Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier.  I had read this before, but this time I read it aloud to my husband, and we both enjoyed it immensely.  Here's what I wrote about it last time I read it, in 2009: "The opposite of forgettable. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is the story of Inman, a man coming home from the butchery of the Civil War to Ada, the woman he might love. Both have changed considerably during the years of the war. Inman has seen - and committed - terrible carnage, and Ada, an over-educated young woman, has had to become useful in ways she never anticipated, with the help of Ruby, who shows up to help, demanding that she never have to empty any night-soil jars but her own. To underscore the timeless theme of a man coming home from war, Ada and Ruby read the Odyssey together, but this isn't a book about archetypes but about particularity. Each character has stories to tell, stories of the past before the war, stories of what they have seen during the war, dreams for the future. But one of the most important characters is the landscape. These characters live fully in their surroundings and are aware of the plants and animals and mountains. Ruby is mostly uneducated but knows everything about farming and hunting and every type of tree and flower and herb. And the book is marvelously written - I kept wanting to reread passages or to read them aloud. There's enough action to satisfy the most bloodthirsty middle schooler but there's nothing cartoonish about any of it, and this book is definitely in the grown-up category. Cold Mountain is beautiful, uplifting, tragic, despairing, heartbreaking. Rick Bass is quoted on the back of the jacket as saying, 'It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one.' I won't go that far, but I do highly recommend it."

This time, this book struck me as being about healing, or at least moving on.  Here's Inman on loss: "You could grieve endlessly for the loss of time and for the damage done therein.  For the dead, and for your own lost self.  But what the wisdom of the ages says is that we do well not to grieve on and on.  And those old ones knew a thing or two and had some truth to tell, Inman said, for you can grieve your heart out and in the end you are still where you were.  All your grief hasn't changed a thing.  What you have lost will not be returned to you.  It will always be lost.  You're left with only your scars to mark the void.  All you can choose to do is go on or not.  But if you go on, it's knowing you carry your scars with you."  But it's also just a great, action-packed story, and it's hilarious in places.  Reading it again seven years after the first time, I still highly recommend it.

Last night I finished book #100.  It's been a long time since I read a hundred books in a year, and it's only July.  Books have helped me get through many difficult moments this year, whether by helping me think about my struggles more clearly, or, on many occasions, by simply helping me forget them for a while.  This book was a little bit in both categories. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a world where a flu epidemic has killed 99% of the world's population.  "Twenty years after the end of air travel," we meet the Traveling Symphony, a company of actors and musicians who travel around the ruined United States in horse-drawn caravans performing Shakespeare and various types of music, because "survival is insufficient."  It's about connections, the power of the past, and healing.  "What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty."

I am very thankful for books, and for healing, and for beauty.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Poetry Friday: Blessing When the World is Ending

I love Jan Richardson's work, and she posted a beautiful poem this week.  It begins this way:

Blessing When the World is Ending
Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

Here's the rest of the poem.

And here's today's roundup.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Poetry Friday: Friends

Friends are such a blessing, but missing them is sad. I guess that's all Emily Dickinson is saying in this poem. And I concur.  (Scroll down for the text if the photo is too small.)

Are Friends Delight or Pain?
Could Bounty but remain
Riches were good -

But if they only stay
Ampler to fly away
Riches are sad.

Emily Dickinson

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Poetry Friday: Midwife

I spent the day yesterday volunteering at a maternity center here in Port-au-Prince, where I live.  I came home to news of violence and death in the United States, and there's been more overnight.  I'm convinced that if we all approached other people the way midwives do, it would be a better world.  Here's a poem I wrote yesterday about my midwife friend, Beth.


Beth asks questions
And she listens.
She writes answers on the chart,
She calls the mother chérie
And frets about how little weight she’s gained.
She looks at her swollen ankles
And comments on her blood pressure
And tells her to drink more water.

She shows me how to measure the parabola of the pregnant belly
Start at the pubic bone and go up to the top of the uterus;
Not the top of the belly,
But here where the uterus ends
There’s a kind of shelf.
I tell her the measurement
And she listens and then writes it down.

Here’s the head; can you feel it? 
That means the back is here, do you see?
Try there with the Doppler, she suggests,
Pointing to the spot as she squirts jelly on the transducer,
And right away
I hear the galloping sound
Of the baby’s heartbeat.
She listens.
A real hippie midwife wouldn’t use this, she says.

And now I’m holding the fetoscope,
The tool of the real hippie midwife,
On the smooth curve of the belly.
I find the heartbeat
And I hand her the headphones,
But she takes the horn from my hand too.
You hear with your being and not just your ears, she says,
And then she places the horn herself

And listens
And listens
With her whole being.

Ruth, from

Here's today's roundup.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Reading Update

Book #86 of 2016 (yes, I did skip #85, but you'll find it at the end of this post) was The Night Manager, by John le Carré.  I often find his books a little confusing, since there are usually a lot of spy-type characters who seem interchangeable to me.  This one was no exception.  Now I'm watching the TV series, but they changed it a lot, so it isn't much use for figuring out the characters.  Oh well.  Here's a le Carré book I liked better. 

Book #87 was Peacekeeping, by Mischa Berlinski.  Berlinski's first novel, Fieldwork, was one of the best books I read in 2009 (the link is to the Reading Update post that contains my review).  This new novel is about Haiti.  I often find it hard to read about Haiti while I am here; everything feels too close and real.  That happened with this book, although it was brilliant.  The author had invented much craziness associated with an election.  We've had an election going on here for well over a year, with cancellations and postponements and protests and recounts and a provisional government, and you can't really make up craziness that surpasses the actual craziness.  I do recommend this book, as he has really captured the feeling of Haiti, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I didn't live here - if that makes any sense.

Book #88 was The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer.  A high school drama teacher decides to put on a production of Lysistrata, the Greek play in which the women of Athens decide to abstain from sex until the men agree to stop the war that is dragging on and on.  As the students rehearse for the play, a strange spell comes over the women of the town, causing them to lose interest in men.  Wolitzer handles the touch of magical realism well, turning the slight story into a surprisingly thought-provoking study of relationships between men and women.

Book #89 was Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell.  A lot of my students read this book this past school year.  It's a pretty intense portrayal of teenage love.  Personally, I wouldn't recommend it to kids as young as my middle schoolers, but many of them loved it. 

Book #90 was The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.  Surely someone will make this into a movie.  It's a cute, over-the-top story about a professor who is definitely "on the spectrum," as they say, and his search for a wife. 

Books #85 and #91 were both by Mary Renault: The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea.  I read these aloud to my husband.  (I love reading aloud; it is one of my very favorite things to do.)  I had read these books before; my high school Latin teacher introduced me to Renault's novels.  These two are about Theseus, and we both enjoyed them immensely.

Three of the books in this post have earthquakes in them.  

Friday, July 01, 2016

Poetry Friday: Henri Christophe

Photo Source:

Earlier this summer, we visited the north of Haiti and toured Henri Christophe's ruined palace, Sans-Souci, and his Citadelle.  I wrote this poem about Henri Christophe.

Sans-Souci, Milot, Haiti

Henri Christophe named his palace Sans-Souci, carefree,
but he was never carefree,
even for a moment,
as he scanned the horizon for the return of the French,
and gathered 365 cannons, just in case,
for his Citadelle higher up the mountain.

People compared his palace to Versailles,
but he was never satisfied;
he rushed around improving and building and defending.
Even when he sat under his favorite tree,
the giant caimit,
it wasn’t to rest and sample the luscious star apples,
but to judge his people,
figuring out their problems,
which I assume were as intractable then as people’s problems are now.

Now the tree is held up by scaffolding.
It’s more than three hundred years old,
which means it had already been there a while
when Henri Christophe was born a slave.
And of course it was there when, a few hundred yards away,
Henri Christophe,
King of Haiti,
shot himself with a silver bullet
so that he wouldn’t live longer than his glory.
When an earthquake knocked down the palace
twenty-two years later,
the tree stood firm.

Henri Christophe,
I wish you’d relaxed a bit,
Stopped worrying about the French
And your glory
And controlling the world,
by the way,
(I guess you noticed)
you couldn’t do.

Ruth, from