The Iliad: 100%

Sunrise over the New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden, June 29, 2021. The sculpture could be inspired by The Iliad, but I don’t think it is.

I recently finished The Iliad, and all I can think to say is: thank God for the movie Troy. Being able to picture Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Brian Cox, and Sean Bean in my mind’s eye as I slogged through the text about Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, and Odysseus was tremendously helpful. Although, on the few bits with Hector’s wife Andromache, I thought less about Saffron Burrows and more about Charlize Theron, because her character in The Old Guard is named Andromache.

When I write “the few bits with Hector’s wife,” I mean it. The Iliad is very male-centric. Even though they were apparently fighting the Trojan War over a woman (Helen), she does not factor into the story very much. What does factor into the story? LOTS of fighting. And some Olympic-type sports. And the Greek gods behaving like Grade A A*holes. I read a version translated by Alexander Pope, where Zeus, or Jupiter, was referred to as Jove. And Jove gets mentioned everywhere, by jove.

The description of the fighting was pretty evocative, and might be the only thing I really enjoyed about this read. Catch this: “He fell heavily to the ground, and the spear stuck in his heart, which still beat, and made the butt-end of the spear quiver till dread Mars put an end to his life.” What a picture! (Although this time Mars gets the attribution, not Jupiter.)

Spoiler alerts ahead: there are two bits of ancient history that I kept expecting to encounter in The Iliad, but they never came up. The first was the death of Achilles. His death in Troy is foretold throughout the story, but the story ends with Hector’s burial, and Achilles apparently very much alive. According to an article by Philip Chrysopoulos in Greek Reporter: “The death of Achilles is not mentioned at all in The Iliad. His killing by Paris, who had discovered the one weak spot of the Greek warrior, comes from another ancient legend, which says that Paris shot Achilles in the heel with an arrow and killed him.”

The second was the Trojan Horse. It is referenced in The Odyssey (which I’m currently reading), but not in The Iliad. And unless it comes up again in more detail, all the reader finds out is that it was Odysseus who kept everyone quiet when they were hiding in the wooden horse. Given all the visceral action sequences in The Iliad, I would have liked to read a depiction of what happened when they came charging out of the horse.

But while these two Greek classics are not proving to be favorites, I definitely feel I’m benefiting from the experience. Getting a first-hand sense of these stories, foundational to so much of western thought, seems to be having a clarifying effect on me. That’s it for now!

Mrs. Dalloway: 100%

Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash

“…having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it, with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.”

— from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is my most engaging read yet this year. Out of the eighteen serials I’ve read on the Serial Reader app, it might be my favorite. Great Expectations comes close, but can’t match the synchronicity I experienced. I never recognized as much of myself in Pip as I did in Clarissa Dalloway. The fact that I’m the same age as Mrs. Dalloway in the novel certainly helped foster this feeling.

That can seem pretty loaded, to say that I identify with a privileged, middle-aged, woman living in excessive comfort in early 20th century London. But that’s not what I mean by stating “I see myself in Clarissa Dalloway.” And I’m pretty positive Virginia Woolf’s intention was not to glorify Mrs. Dalloway’s privilege.

To me, the whole point is that there is so much more to everything, and everyone, than the categories we put them in.

I had a similar experience many years ago when I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I remember strongly identifying with the protagonist, Anne Elliot. Not only did we share a name, we were the same age. Not yet 30 years old, I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t excited about my future prospects. Something needed to change — I needed to change — to course-correct my life. What I took from Persuasion was that if things could change for a 27-year-old woman in the Regency period, there was no reason why I couldn’t shake things up for myself at the fin de 20th siecle.

Clarissa Dalloway is at a different stage of her life, (as am I). Now it’s not so much about changing your life, as it is making sense of it. And what Virginia Woolf accomplished so masterfully in the novel is capturing the multi-facetedness of life, of perception, of everything. Reading Mrs. Dalloway was like being hit with, and comprehending, a brilliant stream from the multiverse. Not only do we understand how Clarissa Dalloway perceives things, we understand how she is perceived, chiefly through the characters of Richard Dalloway, Peter Walsh, and Sally Seton.

And what can I say about the other anchor for the story, the Great War veteran Septimus Warren Smith? Suffering from PTSD and rapidly losing his grip on reality, reading his scenes was difficult, to put it mildly. Clarissa Dalloway does not know him, but knows his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. When she learns of Smith’s death from Bradshaw, she is profoundly affected, and the story comes back around to itself in the most amazing way. It was one of the most convincing depictions of humanity’s interconnectivity I’ve encountered.

I didn’t go into Mrs. Dalloway with high hopes. I read Woolf’s Night and Day first, and didn’t care much for it. There was only one character I really liked, Mary Datchet, and she kinda gets the narrative shaft. Night and Day was published six years before Mrs. Dalloway, so I guess it just goes to show how writers can develop. Something else I can hope to identify with.

To conclude: my recent interest in Virginia Woolf relates to her novel Orlando. I read it in college, and remember being very intrigued with how time is treated in the story. I plan to re-read it this year, and Night and Day and Mrs. Dalloway were a sort of grounding in Woolf. Tying it back to time, the striking clocks were another thing I loved about Mrs. Dalloway. So I’ll leave you with this, right after Clarissa learns about Septimus Warren Smith:

The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.

Don Quixote: 65%

Photo by Cdoncel on Unsplash

I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces last year. It was an effort that took about 15 years. I’d tried to complete it at least twice before, at the urging of folks who claim it’s a masterful comedy that captures the spirit of New Orleans like no other book.

While I feel like “masterful” is an apt descriptor, I’m less inclined to agree with the comedy part. Every time I tried to read it, I found it really, really depressing. It’s evident to me how much of himself Toole poured into the book, and I believe it was ultimately his undoing. And while it definitely captures a flavor of New Orleans that only a native could express so truthfully; it’s a bitterer flavor, and a meaner spirit than I hope to capture in my fiction.

Anyway, I steeled myself and managed to finish it. And it spurred an interest in reading Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. How so, you may ask? Because, I’d seen more than one reviewer describe Dunces’ main character, Ignatius Reilly, as a 20th-century Don Quixote. So I marked Don Quixote as a “Read Later” on my Serial Reader app, with the intention of starting it as 2021 began.

And, so far, so good. I’m enjoying Don Quixote much more than A Confederacy of Dunces. And I definitely am NOT getting the sense that Don Quixote was Cervantes’ undoing. Here are a few observations thus far:

  • Two stories / ten years. Don Quixote consists of two parts, published roughly ten years apart. It’s my understanding that the the first part of the story was an unprecedented success for Cervantes, and led to his writing further adventures for his protagonist. (Fascinating bit of 17th-century intrigue: an impostor apparently published a “fake” story featuring Don Quixote before Cervantes released the second part.) But as far as Cervantes’ original, I notice a difference between the two parts, which I really dig. The humor of the first part seems to be more at Don Quixote’s expense; while he comes across as a stronger and more aware character in the second part. I feel more empathy for him, and like him better in the second part.
  • Life for a noble in 17th century Spain. The experience of reading Don Quixote has been very immersive for me. The world of the novel feels evident and tangible, more so than most of the classics I’ve read over the last several years, with the exception of War and Peace. But while Tolstoy’s classic dropped me off in Russia in the early 1800s, Don Quixote sends me back another 200 years! And even given the further time displacement, the climate of Spain and all the Catholic stuff feel very familiar to me, more so than the world of War and Peace. Plus, the fact that Cervantes philosophizes a whole lot less than Tolstoy has made it a more entertaining read.
  • Knights-errant / superheroes. One last thought: while most of the knights-errant of the chivalric romances — the objects of Don Quixote’s obsession — are unfamiliar to me, it’s been very easy to imagine them as superheroes. Heck, they even call Batman the Dark Knight. Just another thing that makes the world of Don Quixote seem a lot closer than 400 years ago.

The Celtic Twilight: 100%

View from our Dublin hotel room, at the end of May 2019. It was nearly 10pm, a much later twilight than I am accustomed to in Southern latitudes.

So, I finished W.B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight on my Serial Reader app a few weeks ago, but haven’t had the opportunity to share anything about it until now.

Overall, it was a mostly fun and light-hearted read, especially after slogging through ALL The Canterbury Tales. While most of The Tales felt undeniably real, the essays in The Celtic Twilight had an ephemeral quality to them. Case in point, in “The Friar’s Tale,” the devil in his green suit seemed like someone I could easily meet today. The faeries and “Sidhe” that Yeats wrote about felt as shimmery and fleeting as you’d expect such otherworldly creatures to be.

A few noteworthy items I took from The Celtic Twilight:

  • Yeats wrote about Ben Bulben, a mountain in County Sligo: “…the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world.” I love this idea. If I ever return to Ireland, I would love to go hiking there.
  • In an essay entitled “Dreams That Have No Moral,” Yeats lays out a rambling history of a young man named Jack and a series of giants who cry, “Fee-faw-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishman.” A little different from how I learned Jack’s story, and this tale had no beanstalk.
  • I’ll wrap this up with my favorite quote from The Celtic Twilight:

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear.”

The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

War and Peace: 100%

I really wanted to add an exclamation point to the title of this post. But with the percent sign, it may look like I’m cursing (War and Peace: 100%! — though it probably needs a hashtag and an at symbol, too, to really look like I’m cursing…War and Peace: 100%@#!)

Anyway, I don’t want to curse, I just want to shout from the rooftops: I’ve finished War and Peace!!!

It was definitely a challenge, probably the most challenging thing I’ve read via Serial Reader. (Moby Dick was tough, too, but only about 1/3 as long. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was no picnic, either, but it was mercifully short — I was done within two weeks.)

War and Peace was challenging, but ultimately worth it. It wasn’t so much the language or story that was challenging; it was processing all the human experience that is packed into that book.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. In my first post about War and Peace (War and Peace: 19%), I complained about not liking the characters and not caring about the translation.

Fast forward to now. I wound up buying a hard copy, (pictured at the top of this post), mainly because I wanted to be able to reference chapters I’d already read more handily than the Serial Reader interface allows. But it’s also a more recent translation (by Anthony Briggs), and when Tolstoy gets into really deep and heavy stuff, I found this version helpful.

And speaking of deep and heavy stuff, I can no longer say that I don’t like the characters. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily like them now, either. What I can say is that I feel like I know the characters, inside and out, especially Pierre, Andrey, and Natasha. I’m having a hard time thinking of another book I’ve read where the interior life of multiple characters was so expertly portrayed.

On balance, it feels like the past four months was a very good time for me to read War and Peace. Even though the story takes place at a time 200 years in the past, it was so immersive, so much still rings true, and there’s so much that’s transcendent; that it offered a welcome, alternative, perspective on the current state of things. An escape, if you will.

I’ve leave you with a recent photo I took that makes me think of the character Andrey. He has several epiphanies in the story — one occurs while he’s laying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, gazing at the sky. And a separate epiphany occurs as he passes an oak tree in a carriage. For an oak tree and sky — things I see and pass, literally, every day — to make me think of a character in a story…it feels notable, certainly. And maybe even a bit transcendent.

 

 

 

War and Peace: 54%

N for Napoleon? Photo by William Krause on Unsplash.

Okay, so, I can say this about Tolstoy’s War and Peace: it’s certainly immersive. And those privileged characters I found unsympathetic when I was roughly 20% through? I have a bit more sympathy for them now.

I feel like that immersion is definitely expanding my knowledge base. Right now in the novel, it’s the summer of 1812, and Napoleon has commenced his invasion of Russia. I don’t remember learning much about this in school, other than it was one of the times Russia employed a scorched-earth policy. When you grow up in New Orleans, and learn about the War of 1812, it’s about the one where the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. And inevitably, how Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans. Fought after the British has ratified a treaty ending the war. Reading about Napoleon’s campaign against the Russians, I’m getting the sense that things were pretty bad all over in 1812.

About my changing sympathies for the characters…I have to admit, I got caught up in the whole storyline of Natasha getting engaged to Prince Andrew, having to wait a year, getting impatient and almost running off with the louse Anatole. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Really engaging? For me, yes. Tolstoy had a way of capturing the inner life of his characters that is worth some attention.

And don’t get me started on the Freemasons! You’ve got Pierre, the same character who tied a bear to a policeman at the beginning of the story, becoming a Freemason. This might be the most I’ve learned about Freemasonry since the “Stonecutters” episode of The Simpsons. I have more sympathy for Pierre, now, too. The last chapter I read featuring Pierre showed him realizing he’s in love with the aforementioned Natasha (who’s in a love quadrangle?), but nothing’s happened between them yet. I get the feeling that things are going to get real messy when Napoleon starts making his way toward Moscow.

So, yeah, I guess I’m enjoying the reading experience a bit more than when I first began. I still wish War and Peace was a little shorter. 🙂

Happy 2020

The last sunrise of 2019, in New Orleans City Park.

It seems we all have a pre-programmed tendency to take stock of things, this time of year. Add to it the impending start of a brand new decade, and “taking stock” gets turbocharged.

I have just two personal reflections I’d like to share: one on the past decade, the other on the past year.

Regarding the decade: it will be forever inked in my memory as the decade I became a writer. And I mean that in the sense of finding my vocation. When I first put pen to paper, on March 27, 2010, little did I suspect the transformation that awaited me. There is something about giving my imagination a form, a shape into words, that has wholly changed me. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how I’ve changed, since there are multiple factors at work, and the cumulative effect of 10 years of living. The best way I can describe it is that I believe writing has made me both more of myself, and a better-defined version of myself.

And regarding 2019: it’s the year that reading finally resumed its rightful place in my life. I began Moby Dick on January 1, 2019, and actually finished it! (Sometime in March.) That experience, and the Serial Reader app, reawakened my appetite for reading. I read The Count of Monte Cristo, Great Expectations, the first two and a half volumes of the Wool series, and several shorter works, all digitally; and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend as an old-fashioned book. This is pretty significant for me, since I’ve always been a slow, meditative-type reader. I plan to say more about Great Expectations and The Friend in future posts; I’ll just say here that they were my two favorite reads of this past year.

I’ll conclude with this: I feel well-positioned for the next decade. In the early days of my writing, something always nagged at me. I knew if I didn’t read more, my writing would never develop in the way that I want it to, the way I want it to improve. Some of that “not reading enough” was just not being able to make the time, and some of that was a fledging writer’s concern of being unduly influenced by another’s style. I feel like I might have finally arrived at a balance.

Happy 2020, y’all.

Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

The Fourth Age

Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

I had some time to reflect this past weekend, and a phrase occurred to me: the fourth age. I applied it in very personal terms, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, the references.

The first thing that came to my mind was Tolkien. Though I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (many years ago); and I’ve seen the LOTR movies more times than I can count, I couldn’t tell you exactly what transpired in Tolkien’s “Fourth Age.” I just knew the term sounded very LOTR-ish.

The Internet tells me “the fourth age began when Sauron was vanquished and the One Ring destroyed.” Meaning the events depicted in the books (and movies) happened at the end of the third age.

But the Internet also revealed some meanings I was not aware of. There’s a book by Byron Reese that came out last year, titled The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. It appears to be about the times in human history when technology has reshaped our world. Sounds interesting enough, but it’s not what I’m getting at.

There was also a search result that stated the fourth age is “an era for the final dependence, decrepitude, and death.” Yikes. Still not what I’m aiming for, but perhaps a little closer.

No, it occurred to me that I am entering my own, personal, Fourth Age. As I look back, I can identify two, roughly three-year periods, that encapsulated major personal transformation. The first, when I was 16 to 19-years-old, the time when I left home and headed west. The next, the years from 32 to 35, when I returned home for good. If that pivot to home was the start of my Third Age, I sense I am at the end of it.

So if I am smack-dab in the middle of my shift to the Fourth Age, what do I expect it will bring? I don’t anticipate a physical move, the return to New Orleans was always intended to be permanent. But I do hope it will contain as much reading as my first 1.5 “Ages” did. I also hope it will contain more of the special type of magic I always sensed around me, as a child growing up in this magical place. I still sense it, but the obligations of adulting (sorry to use that word) can deaden that faculty.

But most of all, I intend for my Fourth Age to contain more writing than any age that preceded it. I can think of no better way to tap into that magic and share its wonder with a weary world.