Quick Reviews (Greek Edition): #24 The Iliad, #29 The Odyssey, #49 The Aeneid

Needless to say, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid are very, very old. Along with Oedipus the King, they are the oldest classics on The List by more than a thousand years.

But even within their ranks, The Iliad and The Odyssey—attributed to Homer in the 8th century BC—are far older than Oedipus the King (Sophocles, 5th century BC), and The Aeneid (Virgil, 1st century BC). In other words, Homer’s epics were to Virgil what Medieval literature is to us today.

Here’s what they have in common:

Characters. Many celebrated Greek and Trojan heroes make appearances—in real-time or in flashback—in all three. Among them are Achilles, Aeneas, Odysseus, Hector, Paris, and Helen.

Themes. The trio relies heavily on themes of duty and fate, as well as prophecy, divine intervention by squabbling gods, family, pride, and heroism.

Style. All three are written in verse (specifically dactylic hexameter), but with one important distinction: Homer is believed to have composed The Iliad and The Odyssey orally, while Virgil drafted and revised The Aeneid on paper over a ten-year period.

Setting/Plot. The Trojan War and its aftermath are central to each story line. The Odyssey and The Aeneid serve as parallel “sequels” to The Iliad, depicting the homeward journeys of Greek warrior Odysseus and Trojan warrior Aeneas, respectively. Odysseus and Aeneas even encounter some of the same places and faces on their concurrent sea voyages.

I waltzed up to each book with exactly zero background knowledge—a heinous mistake for which I’d like to kick my own ass. There is a clear sequence to follow (Iliad, then Odyssey, then Aeneid) for the best reading experience, and loads of inter-textual references to look out for. Virgil nods left and right to his long-dead bro Homer throughout The Aeneid, even going so far as to model the first half on The Odyssey and the second on The Iliad. I, of course, missed out entirely on this continuity and spend most of my free time grieving its loss.

For the familiar-in-need-of-a-refresher, and for the uninitiated-but-newly-curious, here are the basics on the Classical classics:

The Iliad

  • When The Iliad kicks off, we’re already well into the Trojan War’s fourth quarter. Ten years have passed since Paris whisked Helen away from her husband, the king of Sparta, and battle has raged ever since.
  • Enter Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, with the greatest of weaknesses. No, not his heel, Sherlock—his pride. Less man-god than man-baby, Achilles throws a pouty tantrum and refuses to fight when his war trophy, the beautiful Briseis, is taken away from him.
  • The Greeks suffer great losses until Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend, sneaks off to battle in Achilles’ armor, only to be cut down by Hector, Prince of Troy. Achilles throws another tantrum and then takes his vengeance, triumphing over Hector in a one-on-one showdown.
  • Achilles’ final tantrum—which sees him dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot in a decidedly unsportsmanlike manner—ends only when the Trojan King Priam comes to beg for his son’s body back.
  • That’s it. That’s the end. All you’ve been waiting for, since page one, is the Trojan Horse, but The Iliad knocks off with Hector’s funeral and a few lame hints at Troy’s looming fate. Not cool, Homer.

The Odyssey

  • Fast-forward another ten years, and Odysseus, who fought alongside Achilles against the Trojans, still hasn’t made it home to Ithaca. Everyone assumes he is dead, and his wife Penelope is thronged with unwelcome suitors.
  • As it turns out, Odysseus isn’t dead. It’s just that Poseidon has it out for him, and controls the sea, so…
  • Odysseus tells the Phaeacian king and queen all that has befallen him since his departure from Troy: He and his men got high off lotus flowers and captured by a Cyclops. Then the witch-goddess Circe turned most of his crew into pigs. Odysseus went on to have a lot of sex with Circe, visit the Underworld to speak to the dead, bypass the deadly Sirens, and straddle the six-headed monster Scylla and whirlpool Charybdis, before spending seven years as prisoner to Calypso (a nymph).
  • Once home, finally, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar to slaughter all of Penelope’s suitors. (I swear this makes sense in context.) (Kind of.)
  • Mention is made of the Trojan Horse, but we STILL don’t get the full story—even though it was Odysseus who led the whole scheme. Homer: you epically suck.

The Aeneid

  • Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid hits the ground running at the end of the Trojan War. This time we follow Trojan hero Aeneas out of his freshly ruined city to find a new home. His first stop is Carthage, where Queen Dido promptly falls in love with him.
  • Here and now, we hear the tale of the Trojan Horse at last. It was Odysseus’s idea for the Greeks to build a large wooden horse, hide inside it, offer it as a “parting gift” to the Trojans, and then emerge under cover of night to lay siege to the city—this time, from within its walls.
  • A few misunderstandings later, Aeneas unceremoniously abandons Dido. Dido ceremoniously kills herself.
  • Aeneas visits Sicily and the Underworld before settling in Latium, where his army immediately goes to war with the locals. And wins.
  • Remember that new home Aeneas wanted to build for the last of the Trojans? Well, he’s already there. Latium” is present-day Rome.

For the record, I enjoyed The Iliad the most. With an excellent sense of pacing and an unbiased narrative voice, it is often quite interesting and often quite beautiful. In the spirit of oral tradition, I listened to The Iliad on audiobook, and then wished I’d done the same for The Odyssey and The Aeneid. And while I’d prefer my Greeks (and Trojans) a little less bloodthirsty and a little more feminist, I can’t argue with the effusive spirit—at once larger-than-life and intensely human—that has made them immortal.

Now for a few fun facts. I’d skip them for the sake of time, but these are too fun not to share:

  • We know basically nothing about Homer, to whom both of the oldest known works of Western literature are attributed. We think he existed, we think he authored most (if not all) of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and we think he was blind.
  • The Aeneid was unfinished at the time of Virgil’s death. As legend has it, Virgil, ever the perfectionist, ordered the manuscript burned on his deathbed. Fortunately, Caesar Augustus intervened and, ironically, Virgil’s legacy has had extraordinary staying power.
  • A Classical civilization and literature teacher created this insanely great infographic devoted to all the deaths in The Iliad. She includes battle stats, top performances, and all the most gruesome deaths.
  • I’ve been keeping track (or trying to) of references within the classics to other classics on The List, and the Greeks show up EVERYWHERE: The Divine Comedy, Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, The Magic Mountain, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, In Search of Lost Time, and more. James Joyce’s Ulysses in particular draws on The Odyssey in both character development and structure (not surprising, since “Ulysses” is Odysseus’ Latin name).
  • While there is, no doubt, much more legend than fact in all three Classical epics, the city of Troy and the Trojan War are believed to be real—at least, in some form. In the late 19th century, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site we now assume to be the city of Troy in northwestern Turkey. Since then, we have found evidence of nine different cities built on the site across the centuries, as well as a war (or wars) that may have inspired Homer’s Iliad.

Are They Three of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’ve been known to work up a lot of nerve, but even I won’t besmirch the names of the most Classic classics. You just don’t survive the onslaught of time unless you’re a warrior—and our beloved Greeks and Trojans were nothing if not that.

Favorite Quotes:

The Iliad

Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.

The Odyssey

His destiny, his homecoming, is at hand,
when he shall see his dearest, and walk on his own land.

As the goddess ended, Dawn came stitched in gold. 

The Aeneid

For now the seventh summer carries you,
a wanderer, across the lands and waters. 

In his deepest heart there surge
tremendous shame and madness mixed with sorrow
and love whipped on by frenzy and a courage
aware of its own worth.

Fortune helps those who dare.

Read: 2014 (Aeneid); 2015 (Odyssey); 2016 (Iliad)

10 “Obnoxious” Things “People” Say to “Hard-Core” Readers (Book Riot)

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A few months ago, I came across this 2014 listicle by one Rachel Cordasco: 10 Obnoxious Things People Say to Hard-Core Readers. Curious, perhaps, or maybe just bored, but definitely in the mood for some mild ridicule, I clicked through to Book Riot to have a little look-see. After all, I like a clever listicle as much as the next twenty-something, and I like Book Riot even more.

But instead of howling with laughter (not that I ever do this, hopefully) at an utterly relatable series of spot-on observations, I ended up sitting, confused, at my desk chair, wishing I’d never logged on to Facebook in the first place. Far from agreeing with Cordasco’s introductory declaration that “we hard-core readers have all been there,” I wondered whether anyone has ever “been there.” Of all the things that people say, to bibliophiles or otherwise, I don’t think these are among them.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just happened to pick non-douchey friends, and my family strives against the odds to keep their judgments to themselves, and all the strangers I’ve ever encountered have, by pure coincidence, been the type to withhold their snoot concerning my reading habits. Maybe I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky for a so-called “hard-core reader.”

You tell me.

I’m totally serious. I’d love to know if even one of these comments resembles anything ever uttered aloud IRL. Victims, please share your stories below. Bystanders, give us a play-by-play. Because until I hear the testimony of some actual eye ear witnesses, I refuse to take the scare quotes (a.k.a. sneer quotes) off the title of this post.

Let’s take the list one by one, shall we?

1. All that reading will destroy your eyes.

Is this a thing? Even, like, a well-meaning-if-misguided kind of thing? Some old wives’ tale I missed out on, perhaps—or just some run-of-the-mill concern trolling? Because I can remember my optometrist telling me, about 20 years ago, to avoid reading in dim light. But he was, you know, my optometrist: a medical professional dispensing advice in the context of an eye exam. This kind of sounds like some fire-and-brimstone preacher trying to terrify small children into renouncing sin.

2. You’re going to spend all of your money on books and then you’ll starve and you can’t eat books, now can you.

Well, that escalated quickly. This is obviously completely made up, right? All the way down to the snide italics at the end?

Also, isn’t there a famous quote along these lines featured on bookstore tote bags, or something? Oh, yes, here it is. I wonder if Rachel Cordasco was making a half-assed attempt to plagiarize a tote bag. Stranger things have happened, you know. (Just not this “quote.”)

3. You read books outside of class?

It’s one thing, I guess, to mock somebody for being a book nerd (see #8). But I’m pretty sure everyone has heard of reading as a hobby? Like, that’s kind of on everyone’s radar, even if they think it’s uncool?

4. You read books for fun? What kind of masochist are you?

Again, most of the people who occupy the world I’ve lived in for decades are aware, at least, of the concept of reading for pleasure. And anyone who isn’t would not convincingly use a vocab word like “masochist.”

5. Oh, you read War and Peace? Weeeelllll, guess you’re too smart for me to talk to, huh?!

This kind of sounds like something Rachel Cordasco fantasizes about people saying to her, so she can assemble an arsenal of witty comebacks. Sadly, the occasion has yet to arise, and I fear for her sake that it never will.

6. You know, those poor trees would still be on this planet supplying us with oxygen if it weren’t for you and your kind.

“You and your kind”? “You and your kind“??? HUMANS DO NOT TALK LIKE THIS. I’m not sure any human, living or dead, has ever talked like this. We’ve now reached the point, here at #6, where we must ask ourselves: Is Rachel Cordasco human? Have we fact-checked her humanity? Because this is seriously nuts.

7. Why waste time reading books when you could be doing other things? Important things? Like following the latest celebrity gossip.

Is the person in question saying this ironically? I would have to assume so, but I’m not sure Rachel Cordasco does. The only other explanation is that they’re paraphrasing something an authority figure said in a Roald Dahl novel. But if that’s true, how would they have come across the reference in the first place? A Justin Timberlake quote in People magazine? An earnest tweet from Nicki Minaj? The caption to a photo about What Kate Wore to some children’s hospital? For the love of God, just tell me before my brain implodes.

8. What are you, some kind of nerd?

This is vaguely realistic in a pinch—if you went to high school with Dudley Dursley or, like, Gaston. But all of the bullies I’ve come across would themselves be bullied for saying something this lame.

Also, the world is run by nerds now. They’ve officially taken their revenge. “Nerd” is barely an insult anymore. You know what is an insult? This listicle of lies.

9. You’ll have to buy a bigger house to fit all those books heh heh heh heh heh heh *guffaw*.

OK, wait, is Rachel Cordasco just fucking with us? Has she just been fucking with us this whole time? There is nothing in or around this article to indicate any prankster-ing on her part, and I’m not catching a whiff of satire. But she can’t really think this is a thing that is said, right? Not even the daddest of dads could deliver this punchline without making himself cringe.

10. You should stick to the real world.

Because… people hold fiction in contempt? What? Is this something preachy jackasses also say to anyone who enjoys movies, or video games, or theater? Do they go to malls at Christmastime and protest Santa just to watch the toddlers cry?

An alternate theory: The person who said this was actually a TV critic recommending The Real World over, say, The Bachelor.

And, if so, let the record show that I agree.

Brenna Clarke Gray published a rebuttal just a few days after Cordasco’s original, also on Book Riot. However, she did not take issue with the article’s authenticity; she merely pointed out that “non-readers don’t have a monopoly on being obnoxious” (so true; I find everyone obnoxious).

She went on to include a list of remarks she has actually overheard readers direct at non-readers—and while this isn’t evidence in itself that her list is credible, Rachel Cordasco makes no such claim.

The issue at stake here isn’t just the sleepless nights I’ve spent muttering Rachel Cordasco’s name into my pillow—it’s journalistic integrity and the very bounds of ethics. Is any of this real? Is Rachel Cordasco real? Am I real? Because one of these may be true, and possibly even two, but definitely not all three.

If you have any information regarding the whereabouts (i.e., time and place) of one of the quotes above, please contact me in the comments below.

The Best Literary Links I’ve Come Across This Week (Round 4)

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Here we go again with Literary Links. (I should probably do this every week, but that would get in the way of my laziness.)

Hope you enjoy! And if not, I’m just the messenger!

I’d like to draw special attention to Rufi Thorpe’s MOTHER, WRITER, MONSTER, MAID over at Vela Magazine—a thought-provoking long-form piece on whether motherhood is fundamentally incompatible with a career in the arts.

Also, don’t miss the hilarious comic Every Dystopian YA Novel by adamtots over on reddit.

Happy reading, as always!

Literary Incest: Classics Within Classics

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The more time you spend with the classics, the more you notice the time they spend with each other.

Because, as it turns out, the classics spend a lot of time with each other. They’re kind of obsessed with each other, consumed by each other, locking each other into their own word prisons playgrounds whenever they have the opportunity. It’s a little bit sick, and a little bit twisted, how wrapped up they are in each other’s interests and arms.

That’s why I call this phenomenon Literary Incest.

When I first took on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge way back in 2011, I created a spreadsheet to track meta-themes. My reasons ranged from the obvious (mere curiosity) to the nerd-tacular (spreadsheets are a hobby) to the profound (a need to extract meaning from this endeavor, in the form of half-assed statistics). I tracked recurring subject matter as broad as “social commentary” and “religious commentary,” plot points as specific as “protagonist dies,” “protagonist kills self,” and “protagonist attempts to kill self,” and personal impressions as vague as “characters have weird names” and “book is categorically boring.” As soon as I finished a book on The List, I would dive into my spreadsheet to tick off every box that applied.

At the far end of the spreadsheet was a column labeled Incest: references within the classics to other classics. It was here that I recorded every member of the literary “family tree”—and here that I discovered the Greek and Latin classics to be a sort of father figure to all the rest.

It’s an understatement of irresponsible proportions to say that the Greek and Latin classics show up everywhere in literature. Among the classics that make direct reference to The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Aeneid are:

  • The Divine Comedy
  • Middlemarch
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • The Magic Mountain
  • Tristram Shandy
  • Tom Jones
  • In Search of Lost Time
  • Gargantua & Pantagruel

And those are just the ones I happened to make note of, and that happen to appear on my List. Add to this the fact(s) that Joyce’s Ulysses parallels The Odyssey, that Lowry’s Under the Volcano parallels Ulysses, and that Virgil’s Aeneid is a kind of Odyssey/Iliad two-for-one deal, and we’ve got quite a lot of inbreeding in our hands.

Well beyond Homer and Virgil, though, we can still find countless cases of classic overlap. Middlemarch also contains allusions to Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, and Gulliver’s Travels. On the Road makes reference to Gargantua & Pantagruel, The Sun Also Rises, and Moby-Dick. Brave New World has a Shakespearean fixation, and Tristram Shandy is on speaking terms with Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Gargantua & Pantagruel.

Naturally, the older the book, the more often it is referred to. After the Greek and Latin epics, no book is cited more frequently than Dante’s Divine Comedy: Lolita, The Count of Monte Cristo, An American Tragedy, In Search of Lost Time, and Middlemarch borrow pieces of his genius. And some books, of course, make incest their own filthy habit. Finnegans Wake invokes nearly every preceding classic, and Lolita teases at least six others:

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Divine Comedy
  • King Lear
  • Madame Bovary
  • Brideshead Revisited

So what are we to make of all this? If my spreadsheet is any indication, not much. Lately arrived on its deathbed, this blog is the brightest glimpse of daylight it will ever see.

But if we all put our heads together like some big, perverted family, we might come to the conclusion that the literary greats looked toward one another for inspiration. And when they found it, they gave credit where it was due. And when we’re writing, we should consider doing the same.

Or maybe it was just as show-offy then as it is now to casually name-drop Homer or Dante into conversations/publications, and they were trying to look cool.

But hey, who cares?

There are worse crimes.

#98 The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I like to think of The Count of Monte Cristo as a scientific experiment conducted by God during one of Earth’s more tedious centuries. What happens when you surround a man with enemies, watch them lock him up in prison for 14 years, give him an education, give him endless riches, give him back his freedom, and then unleash him on the world at large?

The Count of Monte Cristo happens. And it ain’t pretty.

Edmond Dantès is, at 19, a happy, well-liked, and gifted young sailor with a doting father and a devoted fiancée. Fortune smiles upon him like a favorite pastime. The future looks bright enough for Ray-Bans.

But Edmond is crushed under his own windfall of good luck when three local dickheads let jealousy get the better of them. Danglars, the treasurer of Edmond’s ship; Fernand Mondego, a local fisherman in love with his fiancée; and Caderousse, his resentful neighbor, accuse Edmond of treason on the eve of his wedding to Mercédès. (Edmond does, indeed, carry a letter from Napoleon, exiled to Elba, but only as a favor to his friend and former captain.) The prosecutor, Villefort, sees Edmond’s innocence for what it is and intends to send him home… until Edmond reveals the intended recipient of Napoleon’s letter: Monsieur Noirtier, a.k.a. Villefort’s father. To protect his own interests and cover up his father’s treasonous affairs, Villefort sends Edmond to the notorious island prison known as the Château d’If.

Edmond is educated in secret by another prisoner (a former Italian priest) before finally making his escape over a decade later. Once freed, he follows a tip from the priest to the island of Monte Cristo and discovers unfathomable sums of buried treasure. The next time we meet him, Edmond has become the Count of Monte Cristo, an omniscient and omnipotent god-like figure with mysterious, foreign habits and an appetite for revenge.

At this point, only a quarter of the way into the book, things really start to heat up. Edmond takes his vengeance on Danglars, Fernand, Caderousse, and Villefort slowly, surely, and mercilessly. He lays complicated traps for each of his prey, adopts numerous aliases, spends an enormous fortune, and generally takes “obsession” to new levels of entertainment.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventure tale in the truest sense of the word. Originally written in serial format, it is 117 chapters of rollicking thrills, dark secrets, and moving romance. We read a separate novel’s worth of stories-within-the-story and witness many of the dramatic events that changed the course of French history. We watch Edmond play the role of Karma and take Destiny into his own hands—for the good of some and the detriment of many.

Since its 2002 release, The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite movies. And while many alterations were necessary to squeeze 1200 pages into two hours of film (and gratify a Hollywood audience), it captures the spirit of Dumas’s original reasonably well: Revenge is satisfying, but not as much as you’d think. We can change who we are, but only by a little. Happiness will elude us as long as we compare our lot with others’. It’s all there, even if it takes a different form.

Between The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers alone, Alexandre Dumas has left a considerable legacy. Born in northern France in 1802, his background was both aristocratic and mixed-race. He moved to Paris in his twenties and worked at the Palais Royal for the Duc d’Orléans. By the time he died in 1870, Dumas’s bibliography included much more than his popular adventure novels: His works ranged from travel narratives on Florence and Naples to historical dramas about famous English actors to essays on infamous European criminals.

By way of curious anecdotes, he had at least 40 mistresses throughout his (apparently very busy) lifetime and fathered a handful of illegitimate children. He also built a country house (circa 1846) and named it the Château de Monte-Cristo—along with a writing studio he called the Château d’If.

The best part of The Count of Monte Cristo? It is said to be based on a true story.

I wholeheartedly recommend this lively and rewarding read, even if it leaves you contemplating vengeance on your own bullies of days gone by.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It may not be Lolita or War and Peace, but it’s way better than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

Favorite Quotes:

There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another.

It is for justice to avenge those she has been unable to protect.

All human wisdom is summed up in these two words: “Wait and hope.”

Read: 2015