Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ovid in The Last Frontier ✰✰✰✰

I have long desired to take on a “real” classic.  That is not to say that the likes of Jane Austen do not write real classics.  Simply that I wanted to read a book that Jane Austen would have called a classic.  Play Book Tag, an online reading group on the website Shelfari, gave me just the impetus that I needed through a game that they are hosting.  For many reasons, I am thankful that I stretched myself and took the challenge, as it taught me much.  To meet the rules of the game, I chose Ovid's Metamorphoses.

On an off note, my copy of Metamorphoses traveled a number of fun places with me during the month I spent reading it.  Included here are some beautiful pictures of Ovid’s Alaskan experience.

Montana Creek, Alaska
I approached my translation selection with careful deliberation.  It went without saying that a free online version translated by someone dead two generations before my grandmother was born would not work for me.  In other words, I did not want to have to slog through Latin translated into Victorian Era English.  David Raeburn’s new verse translation for Penguin Classics, translated in a lively and flowing hexameter (it reads like prose once you settle into the rhythm), was absolutely pitch perfect.  I did have a couple of quibbles with the edition.  The brief notes at the beginning of each book summarized the events to follow, taking away some of the element of surprise, and the end notes were not nearly as extensive as someone unschooled in ancient Greek and Latin literature, such as myself, might need and desire.  If you are used to Bernard Knox’s excellent notes in the Fagels’ translations of Homer, you are bound to miss his scholarship here.

Ovid’s stated aim in Metamorphoses is to trace history, from the creation of the world to the deification of Julius Caesar, through a collection of myths and legends, largely Greek but some Roman towards the end, taken from Homer, Virgil, and a few more obscure sources.  This he accomplishes with flair and a surprising amount of wit, using the theme of physical transformation, or metamorphosis, to blend his disparate tales into a cohesive narrative.
Went to sleep in our RV at a roadside pull-off in
the pouring rain...woke up to this view of Mt. Drum.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska

One reason that Ovid met the criteria for the above mentioned game on my reading group was his link to William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare acknowledged Ovid as one of his favorite sources for plot ideas, and many, especially the link between "Pyramus and Thisbe" and Romeo and Juliet are readily apparent.  Personally, having spent a great deal of time in the art museums of Europe (a special predilection learned at my art loving mother’s feet) as a child and young adult, I visualized as I read-one great masterpiece after another, through many mediums-painting, sculpture, and even architecture.

Ahtna native salmon fishing wheel
Copper River, Alaska
The thing that surprised me the most was the fact that while the book deals primarily with the immoral and often spiteful behavior of the pantheon of Ovid’s immortals, there where definite points of thought provoking enlightenment from which even our mono-theistic age can learn.  One of my favorite sections had to be the brief segment of Book 12 entitled “Rumour”, in which specious gossip becomes personified, and the reader comes to see that some things, despite the passage of two thousand years, remain unchanged in humanity’s forward progress.  Another section that resonated with me came in the second half of the section entitled “Pythagoras”, in Book 15.  Here a lovely description of the passage of time is given: 
Time itself flows steadily by in perpetual motion. Think of a river: no river can ever arrest its current, nor can the fleeting hour.  But as water is forced downstream by the water behind it and presses no less on the water ahead, so time is in constant flight and pursuit, continually new.  The present time turns into the past and the future replaces the present; Every moment that passes is new and eternally changing.
(David Raeburn translation, Penguin Classics edition)

Native peoples are allowed wheels for
subsistence fishing.  Everyone else gets
the joy of "combat fishing".
Susitna River, Alaska
While the vast majority of the book is composed of stories, and it is their entertaining and even riveting nature which keeps the reader engaged, moments like the quote above are what gives this work enduring nature.  Throughout the ages, mankind has attempted in vain to pin down fleeting time and has felt the corrosive nature of rumour’s virulent tongue; these are elements of existence which define the human condition.
This is a far easier read than you might expect.  My 16 year old son will be reading it this year as part of his Ancient History/Literature/Theology course, albeit in a different translation.  I have awarded this book four stars, mostly because I am unlikely to ever tackle it again (although I will read parts of Aspen’s translation to gage the differences), and because I found the endnotes, a very important element in a work of this nature, to be hugely inadequate.  I highly recommend this translation to anyone looking to take on Ovid.  In addition, this is a book which, given its format of division into fifteen books and sub-division into short stories, could very easily be read in segments, a little bit each day, which is often a good way to conquer an otherwise daunting read.  
About as close as you can get to the middle of
nowhere...and still have a road...of sorts.

Friday, August 5, 2011

THE LAST STAND by Nathaniel Philbrick ✰✰✰

This book was rather a disappointment for me.  Many years ago I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower, which also delved into white/native relations, and I absolutely loved it.  Despite filling it to the tips of every page with detail, he managed to keep the story well paced and engaging throughout.  I wish I could say the same about The Last Stand.
This latest work centers, according to its subtitle, around Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  The front end of the book spends a great deal of time and detail enlightening the reader as to the previous exploits of George Armstrong Custer and the shaky relationship that they gained him with the army.  I did enjoy this portion of the book, as Custer was the major figure which drew me to the title.  Also, I appreciated the fact that Philbrick gave a lot of ink, and well balanced narrative, to the lives of the Indian chiefs and warriors who made up the other side of the story.  However, the book went off on rather a bit of a tangent once you actually began the run up to the Little Big Horn.
Philbrick regales his readers with the details, and by this I mean every single meticulously plotted movement that the army made in pursuit of the plains Indians who were refusing to move onto the reservations.  When their progress finally brings them to the famed showdown on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, Custer is nowhere to be seen nor heard from.  One thing that I learned from this book was that there was more than one battle front, but given the book’s title one would think that the narrative would focus on Custer’s role in his famed Last Stand.  Instead, the balance of the tale centers around the other two prongs of the attack, one by the drunkard Marcus Reno and the other by Frederick Benteen.  Custer’s role in the battle is dealt with in far less detail, which was confusing for me, as this is one of only a couple of books which I have read on the subject.  Philbrick uses his focus on the other aspects of the siege of the Indian village along the banks of the famed river to illustrate his point that Custer watched from an over looking bluff as the other commanders, who were supposed to be his support, failed spectacularly.  Far from painting Custer as a martyred hero, he is drawn as a man who hoped to ride his own horse to glory on the backs of two other commanders who’s men he should have ridden to support.
I would highly recommend this book to those who are students of the battle and know Custer’s side of the struggle well.  For such a reader, the level of detail would be a plus, and the interesting angles taken by Philbrick to refute and support many of the legends surrounding the events of those days would no doubt be of great interest.  Also, do not listen to the audio for this one.  George Guidall, one of my favorite narrators, does a fine job, but the printed book is full of maps and pictures which would have made the detailed battle movements much easier to follow.  Or, listen to the audio with good maps of the area (or a copy of the book) in front of you.