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Category Archives: Book Reviews

(Note: this review refers to the Second Edition of the book.)

Last July I decided to study computing in earnest, and I wanted to find a good textbook to serve as a good, solid introduction to the fundamentals of the science. But I wanted to also learn some practical skills while learning more abstract concepts. Google searches on the subject led me to the blog Programming Zen, whose author wrote an article about how to get into computing. He said that beginners should make their entry with the Python language, and that John Zelle’s book, Python Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science, was the best way to start.

I looked it up on amazon, read reader reviews, looked at a few pages and, after careful deliberation, decided it was a good choice. So I ordered it and began working through it. I’ve just finished it now, having taken a large, nearly two-month break in the middle. Accounting for that, I completed the text and its exercises in about 10 weeks, with considerable time spent (often more than 4 hours per day).

I’ve put a lot of time and effort into working through the course of the book, and so I have a lot of strong feelings about the book. There is a lot that is, frankly, quite brilliant and well done. Some things not so much, but, even then, there are some qualifications. In the end, I’d say it’s a wonderful production. It feels strange saying that, after all the frustration I’ve experienced at the hands of the text, but, a few days past it, I can really see how valuable it was. It really shines in comparison to other textbooks that I have gotten know since finishing Zelle’s.

But let’s get into the details, shall we?

1. The Name

Let’s get this out of the way. The name is problematic. Zelle states clearly in his introduction that this is not a book about Python; rather, it’s an introduction to basic concepts in computing, serving as an introductory course to computer science – using Python as an excellent way to start. Zelle is essentially using the fluidity of Python as a playground or laboratory for the archetypal, essential elements of programming he really wants to teach. In the process, you do learn a bit about Python. Enough to make significantly complicated, useful programs, in fact. But that’s almost a side effect of the actual stated goal of the book, which is to impart a deeper understanding of computing concepts. In the end, this focus on core programming concepts makes the book actually very helpful in learning how to program in all languages, including Python. Just in an immediate, “master this in 3 days” kind of way. But that’s not a very valuable way to learn anything anyway.

So I’m left calling the name problematic, instead of outright misleading. Also, you’ll notice that the blog post that led me to the book insisted this was a good way to learn Python, and I’m not criticising that statement, either. It’s a little bit of a gray area: I can see some people saying that, no, this book does not in fact teach Python. And they would be right from a technical standpoint. I happen to be someone who values core concepts and looks at them as an essential part to studying anything I truly wish to understand, so I tend to look at what Zelle is doing here as learning how to program. It’s not quite as direct as other methods, but I think it goes far deeper.

2. Structure and Topics

The thirteen chapters of the book essentially divide into three sections. The first 8 chapters, plus chapter 11, are about basic elements of computer programming: expressions, variables, functions, arrays, strings and string methods, loops and the like. Chapters 9, 10 and 12 focus on design, starting with simple simulations and moving to more complex programs and introducing object oriented design. Chapter 13 is about Algorithm Design, including recursion, and, as such, is the only chapter exclusively devoted to concepts of computer science. Sure, the rest of the book is tempered by a perspective of computer science, but the last chapter is the only one featuring any CS “meat.”

This also presents a problem in defining the scope of the book. When talking about the name, I pointed out how this is supposed to be a book about computer science that uses Python programming as a method to that end. Really, the book is getting you up to speed on programming as an art and science, rather than discussing computer science directly. That doesn’t disqualify it as a computer science textbook, but it makes the focus of the book seem even less clear.

This seems to open up another gray area, as the title did. Is a book really about computer science if it spends most of its text discussing the art of computer programming? Barely. But does spending so much time on design make it a good introduction to the science? There is no better way to introduce a science than
to lead your student to direct experience in the environment that the science works with. As I will explain in the next section, this book will provide you with hundreds of hours worth of practice experience. Practical experience is really the best route to understanding, that is, a full grasp of the concept, as opposed to knowledge.

Many tech authors decide that the best way to teach everything is to, well, teach everything. Their books become massive, monolithic braindumps that provide thorough documentation on their subject, but very little in the way of imparting wisdom or understanding. Zelle excels in this latter method, making his book a true guidebook. A nice contrast from some of the other choices available.

3. Exercises

Wow. Massive. And subtly so: the actual quantity of exercises is not that incredible. But pay close attention (and you will, if you’re trying to go through all of them), and you’ll see that many of these projects are full-scale projects. The book was intended to be a classroom textbook, so perhaps the exercise sections were designed to be picked through by an instructor, shortening the time to complete them. I read this book for self-study, however, and I soon found that the 4 hours per day I had given myself for practicing Python was not enough to complete both the chapter reading and the exercises; then it became a matter of only getting a few exercises done per day; then it got to the point where I was taking multiple days to complete one project. Toward the end, I had entered into an Ahab-like state of obsession, putting all of myself into finishing all of the exercises and coming up with something good at the end. I finished, and it was a spectacular feeling.

Now, that’s just good education. When a teacher gets you to put so much effort into something that it becomes an intense point of focus like that, he’s really throwing you into the task. For a few days at the end, my life was coding. I got to feel what it was like to commit myself to coding. This also ending up being one of those experiences, where I gain insight into myself and how I do work.

Of course, I don’t think that this intense kind of experience was Zelle’s intention – at least not directly. What I credit him for is setting me, the reader, up with a swan dive into the material. This is an excellent balance and a good model for other textbook writers: though the pace of the text is slow, steady and thorough, the exercises can be fierce enough to really challenge you and get you to a high level of real understanding.

Here are some examples of exercises I liked: everything in chapter 4, which introduces graphical concepts at a relatively early stage for a textbook, having you design programs that draw faces and houses at the click of the mouse, for example; the decoding exercises from chapter 5; the bouncing ball animation from chapter 7 (exercise 17); the greyscale conversion (exercise 14) and photo negative (exercise 15) programs from chapter 8; most of chapters 9, 10 and 12 were fun. The end of chapter 12 is really a list of massive projects, where you’re asked to create games that simulate dice, card and board games. Chapter 13 had you working out some pretty funky algorithms, but, in the end, it was too short a treatment of the subject for your projects to get all that advanced. Though it is nice to come away with a script that solves the weekly jumble.

I’d also like to point out that all the exercises are fair. I’ve looked at a few tech texts so far that pull what I would consider a rookie mistake: carelessly creating exercise lists that, while they have to do with the topic at hand, rely on understanding concepts that weren’t directly discussed in the lesson. While this might seem like a small error – I find that for me, and other people I’ve observed, this can be a huge break in the “flow” of the text that throws off the learning experience. I’ll leave it at that, though, just to say that Zelle does not make this mistake.

I want to note that there was a single exercise I didn’t complete. This was chapter 12, exercise 6, which asks you to learn the rules of contract bridge and write a program that sets up the first hand. I’m sorry, I’m not going to spend my programming time learning how to play a game I have no interest in. I know, as a coder I might be tasked in dealing with things I’m not interested in. I’d be glad to. For money.

Not to end this section on a low note, but I must mention the “Review Questions” that come at the end of each chapter, before the exercises. The discussion questions were great – but I wish there had been a lot more of them and that they were more challenging. The true/false and multiple choice exercises were so short and easy they might just as well have not been included. Some drill-like exercises would have been nice in their stead.

4. Conclusion

This was a fantastic read. A true education in the subject, any gray areas its confusing title and structure might evoke for you are really insignificant compared to the insight into programming you are going to come away with. The text is 100% ideal for absolute beginners. I would call myself an advanced beginner – someone who programmed a lot as a kid, but who is just getting back to it after a decade or two – and the level of the text was still excellent for me. There was a lot of review, but it was very constructive – I feel I have a firm grasp on these concepts now. This book is not for more advanced programmers – but they’re not going to be reading any introductions to computer science any time soon. An intermediate programmer wouldn’t get anything out of the lessons earlier, but someone who is short of complete mastery of the subject, I think, will still be able to enjoy the exercises. The easy ones won’t take much time at all – but the later ones make a nice challenge.

This one is going to stay on my shelf a while – if not for myself, then to pass on to other beginners as a strongly recommended introduction.

On to Electra, Sophocles’ take on the Oresteia story you might know so well from Aeschylus. Sophocles’ play fits into the story at just about the same place as The Libation Bearers: it details the grief and desire for vengeance harbored by Electra, Agamemnon’s daughter and Orestes’ sister, and it goes right into the act of revenge itself: Orestes’ murder of his father’s slayer, Aegisthus and of his mother, Clytemnestra.

As the title might imply, there is much more of a focus on Electra in Sophocles’ play than in Aeschylus’s. After a brief introduction showing Orestes and his companions sneakily arriving at the palace, most of the rest of the play shows Electra running into various people and letting them know that her dissatisfaction with the current arrangement is coming to a head. The current arrangement being that Aegisthus is king, is Clytemnestra’s wife; Electra has been complaining this whole time, so she is on a sort of lock-down where she’s not allowed to leave the palace grounds. Her sister, Chrysothemis, insists that she, too, is interested in getting revenge, but she finds that idea too troublesome and would prefer to just get along with everybody.

Eventually Orestes’ tutor arrives and, according to plan, tells a big old yarn about Orestes’ death in a chariot race. Soon after Orestes himself arrives, in disguise. He slowly reveals himself to Electra, the two talk excitedly, the tutor comes out of the palace and says they are wasting time; Orestes then murders his mother and waits for Aegisthus to arrive; he does, and he talks calmly with Aegisthus for a few lines before leading him back to the spot of his father’s death to finish the deed.

The ending is rather abrupt in this one. With all the passionate brutality of Aeschylus’s version, this one seems very cold and calculating. It almost doesn’t seem like Greek tragedy, in that regard, how efficient and direct they are. The most striking thing about it is that there is absolutely no deliberation about Orestes killing his mother. That, too, is done with a kind of cold efficiency that, again, you wouldn’t expect in Greek tragedies. Even the chorus is largely quiet by the end.

This speed and relative terseness at the end gives the end of the play a chilling quality. The mood reminds me of a bloody Western, or maybe an old Samurai movie. Orestes is a little bit less of a character, so I guess it’s consistent to the balance of the story that we don’t get much conscience-talk from him. We do get a lot from Electra, and it’s hard not to notice that she is not very divided. She has no qualms about exacting revenge; there is no inner-struggle or even any question. Her agony seems to center on a feeling of powerlessness and victimization: she’s trapped in the palace; Orestes, in whom she has placed all her hopes for revenge, is absent and perhaps never coming back, for all she knows; everyone around her despises her and tells her to be quiet. Not that this doesn’t make sense, granted the conflict. But, just as with The Women of Trachis, the lack of inner conflict makes me wonder what I can take away from this.

Unlike Trachis, I do feel that there is something rich being portrayed here. I might read this one again, someday, just to get back into the feeling, so get a feel for Electra’s situation, for the people around her. I can’t say that the whole thing is much more than intriguing at this point, but I found myself touching a somewhat deeper bottom with this one than with the other Sophocles.

So I put this one just one increment higher than The Women of Trachis. Though the latter is a little bit more fun (in an action movie kind of way), the stronger character development ranks this play as a B-list classic, instead of a C-list. Or B instead of B minus. Definitely worth a read, without too many qualifications as to who’s doing the reading.

So that’s the end of the works of Sophocles, for me. Next I’ll be moving on to Euripides. By my current count, there are ten of his plays for me to get through, to have read all of them. This includes Rhesus, whose authenticity is debated. Well, it’s in my library, and I’ve never read it, so it’s staying on the list.

Happy reading, everyone!

I now move to the two plays by Sophocles that I’ve never read. They make an interesting pair, as they are both pretty gruesome. In fact, my by-no-means-deep study of them reveals them to be particularly heavy on the agony, the gore and general human suffering. In Philoctetes, the suffering is a real source of humanity that I feel leads to a really satisfying redemption at the end. The suffering is the center of the play, the focus of the characters’ discussions – it is, in itself the conflict that needs to be resolved.

But with these two plays, it almost seems like a novelty: the characters engage in the matters important to them, and people suffer, have suffered or will suffered, and then the play comes to a stop.

I know this is simplifying what are, in the end, well crafted plays worth staying on bookshelfs or, yes, even performed on stage. But the immense pain that the characters endure simply stands out as a defining characteristic.

Let me get into The Women of Trachis. First, this play really could use a namec change. Hollywood producers, let’s say, would never have done to name a play about the relatively insignificant chorus when you could have named it The Death of Heracles, which is an immensely attractive title and is, in fact, what the play is about.

Telling masters of Western drama how to do their work aside, it’s a fairly good read. The back-and-forth is lively, the character of Deianira is intriguing, as is the lying herald, Lichas, who carefully neglects to inform Deianira that one of the prisoners he led into the palace was her husband’s mistress. Another man tells her and, in her desperation, Deianira attempts to regain her husband’s affection by lacing a shirt with a substance she was told by one of Heracles’ enemies is a man-shackling love potion but is, surprise surprise, an absurdly painful poison. Lichas gives Heracles the shirt, and, shortly thereafter, Heracles’ skin essentially feels like it’s on fire as he dies in a maddeningly slow pace. He asks his son Hyllus to immolate him. Hyllus is, at first, reluctant, but Heracles tells him to man up and the funeral pyre gets underway.

The story is, well, engaging. You want to see what happens next, and this is not always the case with Greek Drama. Part of this might be my unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the story, even if I did know that Heracles was supposedly killed by a poisoned shirt. And, I must say, Deianira’s accidental murder of her husband was pretty ironic in the way you are introduced to the concept of irony by reading Sophocles. Destroying that thing that you are so desperately trying to claim for yourself. A good lesson on what it means to own someone’s affection – though perhaps viewing a Greek play with a modern idea of relationship in mind is a little bit inappropriate.

In the end, though, as interesting as all the events in the play are, I’m left not entirely convinced that I’m taking away a whole lot. On the other hand, I can’t really say that there’s nothing there. Again, my readings are not incredibly deep, and, of course, there is the language factor. Even in translation, Sophocles seems like the best poet among the tragedians, striking the best balance of passion and restraint. The suffering of his characters is portrayed with profound sympathy; you can’t but feel for them, and I think this is a strength found in each of his plays.

And while Trachis is no Philoctetes, this magnifying glass placed over the raw intensity of human feeling is just as present. This, combined with the sheer entertainment of the plot, gives the play an appeal beyond afficionados of the genre. I can’t say that everyone must read it, or even that everyone would enjoy it, but I think anyone who likes to pour over stories about the human condition will find this one worthwhile.

I purchased Hard Travel to Sacred Places for $3 at a library book sale three years ago. It’s been in my collection ever since. It’s a Buddhism-themed book by Shambhala Publications, a publisher I like, so I’ve been saving it for a period of time where I need a little refuge. I needed that these past two days, so I pulled it off the shelf.

It’s a simple travelogue, describing a trip to Southeast Asia by Wurlitzer and his wife, Lynn. They visit Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. The couple have a business reason for being there (Lynn is a photographer and is assigned to photograph ancient sites). In addition, they are in a period of grief following the death of Lynn’s natural and Wurlitzer’s adopted son, Ayrev, in a car accident.

I’ll be brief: I did not like this book very much. What I liked about it is twofold. First, what I like from all and any travelogue: descriptions of foreign lands, their peoples, their customs. It’s always intersting. Second, Wurlitzer is observant, patient and thoughtful, and the couple’s journey through the three countries plays like a single, slow, deliberate meditation in three movements. You really do feel the strong current of emotion in the author’s life, and it is touching in that respect. You are also grateful for the moments of insight that Wurlitzer shares with you. My favorite is when he contemplates the statue of the walking Buddha at Wat Mahathat, near Sukhothai, Thailand. He successfully translates how the frozen gestures of a statue can invoke a great amount of feeling and a sense of wonder.

The book suffers from a couple major flaws, though, that mostly diminish any of the positive effects.

The first is that we barely get anything about Lynn or Wurlitzer’s feelings towards her. There might be a good reason; there might not be; but whatever it is, Lynn is almost a non-character, and this is jarring. I feel a big lack. I know she is grieving, but I doubt she is as silent as she appears. Towards the end of the book she suffers a severe episode of mixed physical and emotional pain, and it’s dealt with using the same detachment as everything else. It could have happened to a strange woman sleeping in the next hotel room, for all the narrative is concerned.

The second might actually be a reason to explain the first. This book is overloaded with quotes from Buddhist books. It distracts from the narrative. Personally speaking, I have a serious dislike for quotes and footnotes in literature- I feel that if something cannot be explained in the narrative itself, it should be left out. Exceptions abound (Melville), but, for the most part, they ruin a book for me. And the quotes in this book ruined it for me.

Here it goes a little farther. Here the quotes don’t just add extra time – they seem to be a replacement for the author’s own thoughts and reactions to situations, which is what I would like to read in a book like this in the first place. Interestingly enough, at the very end of the book Wurlitzer wonders if all the quotations aren’t hiding him from the reality that Buddhist teaching is supposed to get him to face. The answer is yes. I suppose this gives a self-conscious quality to the detachment from the story that the quotes cause, but, even so, it was not worth it. They were tiresome, and I missed more of Wurlitzer’s own perspective on his travels. This makes it less of a travelogue: it feels like we are getting less of a description of the places he visited than of the books he was reading while he was there.

The emphasis on Buddhist texts makes the Buddhism invoked in this book very academic. I cannot ever know ultimately what Wurlitzer’s understanding of Buddhism is or was, but, for the duration of this book, it’s very idealized and not of much value to anyone interested in what I consider to be an active, practical understanding.


This book would be enjoyable for people enjoying a quiet meditation on Buddhism, grief and Southeast Asia (in that order). But – and this is important – readers must also either like or not mind a large amount of quotes from other books. If those things are true, the beautiful heart of this book will warm you.

The book has its good moments, but a lot of the passion and insight is filtered through a deadening devotion to literary Buddhism.

I just finished reading The Ramen King and I, by Andy Raskin (2009). It was a gift from a friend, who insisted that I would love it.

Yes, I loved it. It has obvious flaws, but it was both really fun to read and provided great insight into the human condition, so there you go: a good read.

Brief Summary: The story, which is mostly true, follows two threads that weave sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely around one another: Japanese culture – particularly its very charming form of gourmandism – and sex addiction. The focus on Japanese culture surrounds Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant Ramen. You get a lot of biography on and quotes from the guy, who I must say is definitely worth writing a book about. The sex addiction is Andy’s own memoir. The connection? Most simply, Andy ends up going to a 12-Step program and decides that Momofuku is his higher power.

What could be called the core of the narrative is the story of Andy’s spontaneous trip to Japan in an attempt to meet, well, God. The rest of the book is more a collection of longer stories, brief anecdotes, musings and selections from his 12-Step notebooks.

So, this was going to be brief. The Good: It’s really fun to read. Part of that is that I love reading travelogues about Japan. This is mostly one, but not entirely. Andy is also a pretty entertaining writer – it moves quickly, and you enjoy yourself. He brings a lot of very bold honesty to the table, and it’s envigorating to read.

I also like how the threads are not so tight. This has its problems in holding a story together, but after thinking about it, I decided I like how the food thread and the 12-Step threads don’t feel the need to really join up any more than Andy chooses for them to. That’s how life works, and I often find it distracting when authors try too hard to wrap everything up at the end. We have many kinds of threads wrapping around our lives; they are connected merely by being important to us. They don’t need to intersect.

Finally, I must say, his insight into his life at the end is really inspiring. To sum it up: all of his struggles – including his addiction – are an attempt to struggle with the voice of criticism in his head. Dealing with the problems in his life is dealing with that problem. How, I won’t go into. I will mention, however, that this is a very valuable thing for me to be hearing right now, in my life. It’s very true. Perhaps I will revisit this thought, as I think about it.

The bad of this book is twofold: first, the structure, which cycles between different narratives, is very confusing. I was left without truly grasping the order of events. It jumps around too much. Very simple problem; too bad Andy didn’t work it out better.

The other is that it is too long. It’s a short book, in terms of the amount of words. What I mean is that the book continues long after the narrative has lost its momentum. This was a little disappointing, but, fortunately, the first four fifths of the book had more than enough momentum to carry me to the end.

But despite these two flaws, it’s a solid read. I recommend it to a wide variety of people. There are, of course, the japanophiles, ramenophiles and foodies. However, I think people participating or interested in 12-Step programs would enjoy this book the most. If my memory serves me right, it’s a big, fat lesson on Step 2. The book is an excellent illustration of what it means for the non-religious to find a higher power. But, what’s more, it really shows you the details of how the higher power can help you – how to use it best. Maybe this is par for the course for 12-Steppers – I’ve never been through a program so I don’t know.

I’m led to sincerely wonder how a higher power might fit into my own life. And I’m also wondering if maybe so quickly assigning this role to a traditional deity is a serious hindrance to the program doing its work. But that’s for another discussion.

Seven Against Thebes; translated by David Grene.

The superior translation in this edition seems to make all the difference here compared to the last two, though I do think that this play is somewhat engaging on its own.

Readers of Sophocles’ Thebes trilogy will recognize the main character, Eteocles, one of Oedipus’s sons. The other son, Polyneices, is about to attack the city with a massive army from rival city Argos. We see Eteocles talking and arguing with the women of Thebes as he receives messages about the approaching soldiers. The titular seven are generals who were chosen to lead seperate regiments against the cities’ seven gates. The meat of the play is the messenger’s description of each general – a brief summary of his character and description of the devices on his shield (or lack thereof). In this long scene, after each description, Eteocles chooses a suitable warrior from his own ranks to counter each enemy general’s particular character. The final general is, of course, Polyneices himself, and Eteocles decides to face him hermano y hermano. They die, and the brothers’ more well-known sisters Antigone and Ismene arrive to mourn their bodies. An epilogue, which supposedly is apochryphal, introduces the city’s ban on burying Polyneices and Antigone’s resolution to put his body rest anyway – thereby introducing Sophocles far more famous play, Antigone.

Is Grene simply a better translator, or is this play actually more interesting than the other two? I think it’s both, actually. Compared with the first two, this one was a little entertaining and somewhat thought provoking. It is by no means a masterpiece (as Grene himself points out in the introduction – what’s with all this ragging on Aeschylus?), but things happen; you know what’s going on; there’s interesting tension between the characters; and, finally, I really loved the descriptions of all the generals. There’s this common thread (or meme, if you roll that way) in literature, whereby a special team is formed from individuals with particular personalities and, if applicable, super powers. Chalk it up to the number being magic, but usually there are seven such members. E.g.: The Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven. And, last but not least, my favorite Grimm’s fairy tale: The Seven who went Far in the World, which was the basis of the Terry Gilliam movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

So it seems that Seven against Thebes was the first instance of this story, and I found it just as bad-ass as I always do. The only problem here is that it’s so brief. We only get the set up for about 300 lines, and then the battle is resolved off-stage in about two minutes. What a tease. Where’s the action? Sadly for us moderns, the Greeks were more interested in the curse that led to the battle and the mourning that followed it than some fanboyish interest in the powers of heroes.

And, to be honest, the Seven don’t really have amazing powers, just vaguely interesting personalities. Of special note are Tydeus, who ends up surviving the battle and fathering a son named Diomedes – the guy who ends up stabbing Aphrodite in the Trojan War; and Amphiaraus, a prophet-warrior who has a plain, unadorned shield; openly considers the battle an immoral decision; yet goes into battle anyway, because he knows he’s fated to die in it. More on this attitude shortly.

I’m not going to be a complete philistine here and say that this very sensible and understandable treatment of the subject – with loads of historical context to explain it – was worthless. In fact, the discussion of the curse was kind of chilling in itself.

To add to Amphiaraus’ predicament above, the chorus makes it clear that Eteocles has every means available (at least in a world in which curses are real and can be purged by sacrifices to the gods) to end the conflict immediately, but he chooses not to. He displays a very cold, almost frightening fatalism, rushing in the battle to reach some kind of closure that is not very clear to the chorus or to me. Readers of Oedipus Rex are introduced to the Greek idea of fate, to the machinations of the Gods and how crimes cannot be ignored. But this is going a step further – Eteocles is consciously aware of all the gears in the machine that brought him and his city to the brink of destruction – and he still refuses to change anything. What does this say about free will?

This issue is certainly worth thinking about, maybe even losing some sleep over.

While Seven against Thebes is not the best tragedy ever written and seems incomplete in a somewhat frustrating way, it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Thebes dynastic drama (Cadmus, Oedipus, Antigone, etc.); Greek mythology in general; Greek Tragedy; and the Seven-Member Team of Awesome Meme.

(Endnote: Maybe Wes Anderson could roll out a movie script for this one? I really want to see colorful shots of the Seven in which they face the camera and people do quirky things in the background – set to the Rolling Stones.)

I’ve decided to read all the Greek Tragedies that I haven’t read yet. In actuality, what I’ve decided is to read through all the books on my shelves I haven’t read yet, and the first group happens to be my collection of the Grene and Lattimore Tragedies.

Today: three by Aeschylus (in two parts)

The Suppliant Maidens; translated by Seth Bernardete.

Right from the beginning, Bernardete says that this play is uninteresting. I would say he’s correct.

The plot is a tiny section of the story of Danaus: his fifty daughters (the maidens from the title) ask entry into the Greek city of Argos as they flee the lust of their cousins, the sons of Danaus’s brother Aegyptus. The king of Argos, Pelasgus, first hesitates and then lets them in. The end.

Probably this is only of interest to diehard classics scholars. Or perhaps it reads well in the Greek. Judging by this play and the next one, I rate Bernardete as a poor translator. His lines don’t read very well. There is too much switching of subject and object. Sentences are weak and ambiguous. Couple this with the weak source material, and you have a total pass. I am very, very tolerant of what most people call uninteresting and obscure, but this doesn’t even appeal to me.

Always looking for the silver lining: I find it interesting that Pelasgus offers the maidens food and lodging right away. Perhaps this is normal procedure for royalty treating royalty, but, in the context of modern times, it strikes me as an example that culture can be so constructed as to ensure that people in distress are taken care of. Ever since working at a homeless shelter, I have wondered if many of the dysfunctional parts of our society are really necessary. I’m going to file this away for further thought.

The Persians, translated by Seth Bernardete.

Once again our translator deprecates the work he’s going to translate, though not as much as he did Suppliant Maidens. This play is at least a curiosity: the only surviving tragedy with a subject matter pertaining to current events (well, events within 10 years of the play’s composition). The play depicts old men in Sousa, the capital of the Persian Empire, worrying about the fate of King Xerxes and the progress of his army. Xerxes’ mother joins the general gloom. A herald arrives, telling of the Persians’ defeat at the naval battle of Salamis. The queen and the old men decide to summon the ghost of Darius to ask for advice. The ghost, who seems impatient, explains that Xerxes’ arrogant display, where he claimed to have conquered the Ocean itself by crossing the Bosporus and throwing chains into the sea, angered the gods and caused his downfall. He predicts future defeat for the Persians. Xerxes himself arrives, and they all wail and moan.

There are some elements of something interesting here: ghosts, military disaster and a unique setting for a Greek Tragedy. Sadly, though, this play can’t help but seem to be a part of something greater. And, once again, Bernardete’s muddy translation makes the very quick script go by too slowly. It was interesting to imagine the Athenian audience of the play, all or most of whom would have been veterans from the victorious side of this war, feeling at least a little compassion at the misery their enemies must have felt. But that’s about it.

It’s interesting as a curiosity – appealing perhaps not just to Greek scholars but also to history buffs. If you’ve just read Herodotus, or even if you’ve just watched the film 300 and want a little epilogue to the story of the Persian Wars, it might be worth reading this one. But edifying literature it is not.

(Continued in part two)