Friday, November 27, 2009

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen is a graphic novel originally published as twelve comic books in 1986 and 1987. It is also the source material for the 2009 movie of the same name.

This is a dark and disturbing story set in the recent past of a world very similar to our own. Costumed crime fighters - superheroes of one sort or another - exist and were mostly forced out of the business by law some time before the story opens. Those who work for the government or ignore the law continue what they were doing while the others retired and aged. As we join the story someone starts killing them off, and the plot grows from there.

Every character in here has a difficult back story of one sort or another, and their psychological challenges are on stage just as much as the plot itself. That's somewhat to be expected. After all, just how likely is a normal person to put on a costume and personally fight crime? No, it takes someone special - or disturbed - to do that.

I found the story engaging, but the methods used by the villain - particularly at the very end - seemed a bit over the top, even for this world. The characters were pretty good, but some suffered from a lack of believability. I bought into Rorshach, and the Comedian, found both Dr. Manhattan and Veidt too far fetched, and Nite Owl didn't resonate. I won't call out the whole list but you ge the idea.

Overall I thought it was a good read, but not outstanding. My copy says it won a Hugo award and is on Time Magazine's list of the 100 best novels. I don't think I can agree with the latter, but it's good in any case.

Recommended with some minor reservations.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Iliad, Homer, translation by Richmond Lattimore

The Iliad
Richmond Lattimore

I may be showing my lack of cultural sensitivity here, but I pretty much hated every word of The Iliad. Honestly.

I am warned that some of my reaction may be the result of the translation. A friend - who reads both ancient and modern Greek fluently - tells me he dislikes the Lattimore translation. I suppose another translation might be better, but I can't believe it would make that much of a difference, as many of my complaints were with the content.

I realize that I am reading something that was written a long, long time ago. Thousands of years ago, in fact. Things have changed since then, but still, this really got up my nose.

Let's take something simple: half the text was a list of who killed who, some identifying description about the combatants, and the specifics of the kill. "Bob, who comes from Muncie Indiana and is the son of a tailor and a grocery clerk, killed Joe, who came from Arcadia California and managed a discount clothing store, by stabbing him with a spear in the head. His brains splashed out and he fell, with the dark mist closing over his eyes. Then Bob stripped off Joe's armor." Pages and pages of that sort of thing, varying only with the descriptions of the people and the nature of the killing stroke. To say it was monotonous would be putting it politely.

Then there was the matter of names. Hundreds of names, I suspect, of both people and places, that mean nothing to me. It was boring now, and I wonder about how it would have gone over when it was written. How many people would know those names and places even at the time?

The gods and their meddling bugged me too. Both the Trojans and the Greeks wind up praying to - and taking offense at - the perceived actions of Zeus and the other gods. It's pretty funny (taken from a modern point of view) that Zeus changes his mind so often about who is important and will therefore get the glory of the battle. But in all honesty I got really tired of the constant interfering and bickering among a bunch of nonexistent entities. They were the excuse used for whatever really happened in the battle, and it showed.

I was also reminded of modern athletes who cross themselves or otherwise perform some obvious prayer after scoring or winning in some sporting event, only the Greeks and the Trojans were at least honest enough to admit that the gods could also favor the other side.

On top of that I found the constant descriptions of the offerings to the gods got more than a bit revolting. So many animals and people were killed (just in this one book) to keep the gods happy. And what does Zeus need with all those bits of the fat of the various animals slaughtered in his name?

In the end the gods were more of a distraction and an annoyance than any real part of the story. Maybe if I was a believer I'd feel differently.

Human behavior is on display here too, and that drove me crazy. The Trojan and Greek cultures were abominable. Prowess in battle was all important and women were nothing more than objects possessed by men. I'd like to think humanity has improved since this was written, but I'm afraid it hasn't come nearly far enough to make me happy.

Finally we get into actual story issues. For those not familiar with it, The Iliad discusses a portion of the fall of Troy. The infamous 1000 ships came to Troy to get Helen back, but it was something like ten years of siege later that the conflict finally came to an end and Troy was wiped out. The Iliad covers some but not all of that final conflict.

There were all kinds of issues with the story itself. In places it made no sense in terms of locations and descriptions. In other places the meddling of the gods turned a battle into some sort of supernatural contest, which we know didn't really happen that way.

More disturbing, though, are the main events that are and aren't covered in the story. Why, for example, do we spend a lot of time on the siege and the fighting up to and including the death of Hektor, but then not cover the actual fall of Troy itself? We don't even get the death of Achilleus, though we are told he is fated to die very soon, before he can go home. There's something wrong with a narrative structure that doesn't actually tell the main point of the story.

I suppose I could be wrong. Maybe the main point of the story is the death of Hektor, but if so then it should be entirely recast and a lot of other things left out to spend more time on the events going on around him.

And why is the second to the last chapter entirely devoted to a series of games and contests the Greeks play amongst themselves after Hektor is killed? It's chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, and the like, but it seems radically out of place and unimportant. If it really did take place in history - say a champion of the Greeks (who might have been named Achilleus) managed to kill a champion of the Trojans (who might have been named Hektor) - would they really have paused all activity to spend an entire day playing games in celebration? And if they did, wouldn't the Trojans have done something useful during that time? That chapter felt entirely out of place.

The final chapter deals with the return of Hektor's corpse to the Trojans, which is accomplished only with more meddling from Zeus and his buddies. Silly. I would have found the Greeks more human and approachable if they'd returned Hektor's body to Priam themselves, without needing Zeus (prodded by Apollo), Iris, Thetis, and Hermes to make it happen.

In all I think The Iliad shows humanity in an awful light. I found the writing (or perhaps the translation) to be repetitive and stilted. It actively impeded comprehension of the story to the point that I'm not even sure what the author thought the important story points were.

Yes, it's a "classic" in the sense that it has survived over a very long period of time, and it may be important as a result, but I'm sorry to say that my impression of it as literature is not good.

Sadly, I cannot recommend The Iliad.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens

God Is Not Great
Christopher Hitchens

One of the things about reading a lot is that I am constantly having my nose rubbed in how little I know and how small my life experiences actually are when compared with others. Reading just about anything by Hitchens can cause that sort of feeling, and this book drove it home for me.

With the subtitle "How Religion Poisons Everything", the subject is pretty obvious, and Hitchens doesn't hold back. His command of the language and literature are quite good, and he drives his points home completely. He spares no religious tradition of any sort.

There are three different reactions I had to reading this book, and keeping them separate in my mind is interesting:

1) Religion and its problems. This is, of course, the thing Hitchens is really after, and despite being essentially a life long atheist I learned a few things in here. For example, if you wanted the services of a prostitute in Iran you can get them *within* Islam. The Iranian brothels have the ability to marry you to the woman in question for an hour, and divorce you when you're done, thus making the transaction legal in the eyes of god. Seems a pretty petty and small minded god if that's all it takes to make prostitution legal in a theocracy, but then again, Islam tends to treat women pretty poorly anyway.

And don't think Christianity or Judaism get any better treatment here. Hitchens is well read and can open your eyes to the horrific things the founding texts contain, as well as the actions and beliefs of the more ardent current believers. Hitchens really dislikes Mother Teresa, and has all kinds of arguments on that front. Amusingly (to me) has has significant problems with the Dalai Llama too, and once again has the relevant knowledge to back up his vitriol.

I appreciate what Hitchens has to say here, and I agree with most if not all of what I read. There are so many awful things done in the name of religion, even now, that I wish it could all just be stopped. Sadly, however, I don't think most of the human race is anywhere near giving up its love of mystery and it's willingness to be lead by someone charismatic, regardless of how silly that leader's claims may be.

2) All that praise aside, I did have a problem with the book to some degree. It seems to wander a bit. Chapters that supposedly focus on one thing or area seem to meander into other areas without good reason. I found this a bit distracting at times. I can't tell if the book was rushed to print - without an editor suggesting ways to tighten up and/or reorganize to make it more effective. Alternately it might have been written over a very long time, where the focus of the author (and possible editors) gets lost in the long haul to get it out. Or maybe I'm entirely wrong and every word is exactly as Hitchens intended. Regardless, I found some of it a bit perturbing on an organizational level, and would have appreciated a slightly tighter presentation.

3) Finally, there's the issue Hitchens's life experience. This is what I alluded to before. My own experiences and travel are nothing in comparison with those of Hitchens, and it's humbling to be shown how some have lived a broad and expanding life well beyond that of the rest of us. Hitchens has spent time in many foreign countries, in the presence of many dignitaries of various kinds, and generally lived in ways that the vast majority of us cannot imagine. I found it humbling in some ways and yet slightly irritating in others.

At times Hitchens's experiences back up his statements nicely, driving his arguments to conclusions readily. At other times, though they seem a tad peripheral, and it might have been better to present things without reference to all of those places and people.

In any case, I learned things from this book - some of them very disturbing - and I appreciate the fact that it was written. Hopefully it opens a few other eyes in the world.