Tag Archives: classics

Review 45: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I mean, it’s one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It’s required reading in nearly every high school in America – and at the same time it’s a regular guest on the American Library Association’s “Most Banned Books” list.

A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what’s left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it’s a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story – a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus’ sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus’ capable hands.

Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book – the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, “Who is the mockingbird?” Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end – it’s the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.

And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I’m reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?

It’s also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. “Our courts have their faults,” he says, “as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus’ talents and integrity wouldn’t have been able to help Tom Robinson.

I guarantee – someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I’ll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.

I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.

As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus – a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.

The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing – defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It’s hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now – anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.

Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town – in several parts of the book, he’s likened to a savior.”We are so rarely called on to be Christians,” says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch’s, “but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” He exhorts his children to spend time in another’s skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it’s absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town – black and white – but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.

Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he’s Atticus’ son and therefore keeps his promises, but it’s not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.

It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her – so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.

The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he’s too good. It’s hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He’s kind of like Superman in that regard – his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.

Of all the flaws one could have, though, that’s not too bad.

I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is “Why should we do good?” Atticus knows why. Because it’s the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn’t need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn’t need to convince anyone that he’s doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he’s doing is right, and that’s all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he’s an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won’t necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that’s what living a good and honest life means, and that’s what I learned from Atticus Finch.

What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee’s written. It’s so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it’s hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she’s written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them – some of them great, some of them not – and others just have one. And in Lee’s case, it was a humdinger.

If you’re going into high school and you’re reading this – you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I’m going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There’s a lot to learn from this book, and it’ll stick with you for years.

If you haven’t read this one since high school – read it again. It’s far better than you remember.

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“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
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To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia

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Filed under children, classics, coming of age, family, fathers, fiction, Harper Lee, made into movies, murder, racism

Review 41: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Full disclosure: I have never read Pride and Prejudice. It’s one of those novels that you’re really supposed to read, and maybe I did read it back in high school English class, but if I did, my brain has scabbed it over. It’s a book that, for reasons which I don’t understand, is adored around the world.

The original book (according to Wikipedia and what I gleaned from reading this) is a tale of the Troubles of Rich People. It’s a novel of manners, in which the conflict centers entirely around the personalities of the people involved. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is one of five daughters born to a house of moderate means. Since they’re growing up in a patriarchal society, the only way for them to be at all successful in their lives is to get married – especially so that they might have some chance of inheriting part of their father’s estate someday. Their father seems to resent that they were all born girls, and really wants nothing to do with the family at all. Their mother has but one wish, and that’s to see her daughters all get married.

So when a handsome young man – Charles Bingley – moves into the neighborhood, the Bennet household is all a-flutter over the hopes that he might pick one of their girls to make into an honest woman. Unfortunately he brings his friend with him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is immediately unlikable, especially to headstrong and opinionated young Elizabeth.

I don’t know if it was Austen who gave birth to this trope in fiction, but we all know what’s going to happen when two characters are introduced that hate each other from the start.

The story goes on, propelled forward by the ever-evolving relationship between Darcy, whose brusque and unmannered exterior hides a deep and compassionate soul, and Elizabeth, whose independent and free-thinking nature is reined in by the discovery that what she assumes to be true very seldom is. It’s a book about relationships and about passions, about manners and status and about 300 pages too long for me to deal with.

I like to think that I’m a cultured, intelligent person, but there’s only so much I can take of this kind of thing. I find it really hard to care about people I have so little in common with – I have no property to protect, I don’t really care about social class or about artificially inflated systems of manner. I don’t come from a family that is concerned with marriage or status, and so I don’t identify with the characters. In works of this nature the world is alien to me. I can’t relate to the story and, more importantly, I don’t want to relate to the story. I hope that I have better things to do with my life than worry about who has fallen in love with whom and who is hiding dark secrets from their past.

And so, the addition of zombies to the tale is just fine with me.

According to the co-author, Seth Grahame-Smith:

“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway.” 

Smith saw a great opportunity, which I’m sure many other people will follow. Since Pride and Prejudice is a book in the public domain, anyone can do whatever they want to it without having to worry about copyright laws. If you want to make a movie or a play or a comic book or a porno movie out of it, you’re free to do so. Smith saw a chance to create, for lack of a better term, a literary mash-up, bringing two types of story together into something completely new.

Now, the Bennet daughters are five of the fiercest fighters in England, devoted to holding back the zombie menace that has gripped the country for five and fifty years. Trained by the greatest Chinese masters in all the killing arts, the Bennet Sisters are famous for their merciless dealings with the unmentionables that roam the countryside, looking for fresh brains to sate their unnatural hunger. Elizabeth Bennet not only has an independent and free-thinking nature, but she’s also not above killing ninjas, ripping out their hearts and eating them.

The combination of the two styles – the regency romance and the ultra-violent zombie mayhem – works rather well. Smith has done a fine job in not just shoehorning the zombies into Austen’s tale, but making sure that the new version of the story is internally consistent. The zombies are a real and present force in this story, waylaying people on the road, occasionally delaying messages and causing very dramatic misunderstandings. And in this new and deadly environment, the dance of misunderstandings between Darcy and Elizabeth goes on, eventually – of course – ending up in the union of two of the greatest zombie hunters in England.

The best part, by the way, is the Readers’ Discussion Guide in the back. In case you want to read this with your book club, the authors have included some ideas for discussion, such as “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?” and “Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?” It’s a very nice touch, I have to admit.

With some fantastically period illustrations of zombies, brain-eating and ninja-baiting (as well as a rather odd one of the Bennet sisters’ favorite game, “Kiss Me Deer”), the book is kind of surreal, and I reckon it is one that will entertain a good number of readers, though certainly not all of them. For me, I found that the altered parts of the text – the zombies and the occasional ninja – were the most fun part. The characterization of the Bennet sisters as hardened warriors occasionally given over to fripperies was strange, but entertaining, especially since Graham-Smith made sure to keep the characters consistent. Elizabeth’s thoughts and actions are primarily dictated by her Shaolin training, and many of her decisions are rooted in a deep sense of a warrior’s honor, rather than a society girl’s manners.

Furthermore, this strange new England was well made. It’s a place where the zombies were a threat, but after fifty-five years, they’ve been downgraded to more of a dangerous annoyance. Kind of like FOX News. The zombies are a seasonal menace, less prevalent in the winter when the ground is hard, but like cicadas they burrow out of the ground in the spring to menace travelers and (unlike most cicadas) eat their brains.

The problem for me wasn’t so much the zombies part of the book as it was the Pride and Prejudice part. As I said above, I don’t really identify with what the characters care about, and once they got off the topic of the zombie menace, my eyes started to glaze over a little. Fortunately I knew that there would be another bit of mayhem on the way to perk me back up.

It made me think, though – there must be something that I’m missing. Not only has the book been around and popular for two centuries, but it’s beloved enough that even a drastic modification of it would draw in readers. P&P&Z was a bestseller on the New York Times list and the mere announcement of its existence sent the blog world into an utter fangasm. The addition of zombies to an otherwise beloved tale was met with open arms, a sign that Pride and Prejudice held an honored place in the literary heart of the world. So if I don’t get it, then there must be something wrong with me…. Ah, well. As I said of War and Peace, I’m not in this game to score points. So don’t expect me to try and slog through the original just to see if it holds up to the zombified version.

The big question, of course, is What’s Next? There are so many pieces of classic literature out there, all in the public domain and all just ripe for this kind of treatment. Tom Sawyer and the Wizards of the Mississippi? The Shape-Shifting Alien of Monte Cristo? Anne of Green Gables and the Robot Hordes from the Future? Mark my words, this book is only the beginning….

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“No ninjas! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your safety.”
– Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, horror, Jane Austen, parody, romance, Seth Grahame-Smith, zombies

Review 31: The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

Sing to me, O Muse, of a long damn poem,
which saddled the backs of many a Freshman English Major before me
and brought the mist of term papers down around our eyes

Can you tell me, O Muse, of the deeds done in this book
in less time than it takes to fight the actual war
in which the blood of many a legendary, some say mythical, figure
was spilt and lost, fed into the hungry earth of Troy?
Sing to me of feasting and fighting and the filching of treasure
of Dawn and her Rosy Fingers as they greet the tenth year
of the War of the Acheans (which are also known as Greeks,
but only by the terribly uneducated)
against the great city-state of Troy.
Tell me of ten years’ warfare, the great hollow ships
ranged against the shining walls of Ilium!

Of all the Acheans, only one could be the Hero of this war
a man spawned of a Goddess, a son of the oceans and a scourge
on all who oppose him, who would flee and crap their singlets
at the very sight of his blazing armor.
As a three year-old child sits in his room and sulks
upon not receiving a bicycle for his birthday,
ignoring all the treasure heaped upon him by otherwise doting parents,
crying to the walls and his toys in the closet
and raging against the injustices of those older than he,
so does Achilles, the greatest of Egos in the Achean army
sit in his tent and whine about Briseis,
the woman he won in warfare, only to have her taken by Agamemnon.

“Help me Mother, goddess of the ocean’s foam,” he cried.
“Agamemnon’s pissing me off and I want him to suffer for it!”
And so did his doting mother appeal to Zeus,
he of the Thunderbolt Libido with a Thing For The Ladies
and the King of Gods did make it so,
giving the troops of Troy and their leader, Hector, advantage
only to crush them in the end so as to increase
the glory of Achilles.

Who can sing the insanity of this plan, this war?
Should I live a thousand lifetimes, I would wither of age
before I could recount the acts of treachery and pettiness
brought about by gods and men on the blood-soaked plains of Troy.
Would that I had the time to list the dead and dying
the blood and the viciousness of unholy war,
balanced by rare acts of humanity and kindness.
If only I possessed that rarest of gifts, the patience
to list the atrocities of the Gods wrought upon men.
Such was the gift of Homer, to do so long ago
what we cannot, weak as men are now.

Great Agamemnon, whose pride and stubbornness rival Father Zeus
Himself. Achilles, the mighty, the hero who becomes human
only when all that he truly loves is taken from him.
Hector, breaker of horses, the father and defender of a city
doomed from the outset.
Priam, Aged King of Troy, watching his sons die one by one.
The libidinous Paris, whose inability to think
with the right head started all of this,
and Helen, would that she drowned before reaching Troy,
watching the terrible battle from her rooms.
And her rightful husband, the red-haired Menelaus
whose rage brought a thousand ships across the wine-dark seas.
Patrolcus, incapable of following one simple little instruction.
Godlike Telamonian Ajax, clever Odysseus, and aged Nestor
always with a long-winded, vaguely relevant story at hand.
These are the heroes of this play, O Muse.

And there are certainly villains –
those immortal Gods whose every whim costs the lives
of noble mortal men.

White-armed Hera, scheming against her husband
Zeus, who grants the ascendancy of Achilles at the cost
of uncountable Trojan and Achean lives.
Aphrodite and Ares, fighting for Troy,
grey-eyed Athena and Poseidon with his blue hair, urging on the Argives.
All playing their games, and in the end, the same as they began.
For, being deathless Gods, they cannot change
and what cannot change cannot learn.
And so the Gods, whose machinations set this tragedy in motion
escape unscathed during the passage of many a mortal soul
into the dark arms of Hades.
And the mortals, playing parts in Zeus’ puppet show
dying to bring greater glory to Achilles.

Would that I had the time to underscore the glory of this tale
and how centuries of the written word have been built upon it.
Give me the strength, O Gods, to tell of this cornerstone!
As a single oak tree, growing tall and splendid towards the sky,
reaching for the sun and spreading its roots into Demeter’s
fertile earth, put forth leaves whose numbers are unknown to man
so has this epic poem inspired more works than can be counted
by a writer as simple and humble as myself.
So reach out, dear Reader, reach out and find this tale,
and as a vast tank holds enough rainwater to replenish
fields and fields of fecund earth, bringing forth
crops to feed people by the thousands,
so will you become a repository of literature and history
and be able to show the world just how utterly
utterly
cool you really are.

Come with me, O Muse. I need a drink.

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“And now as the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields’ bosses pounded hide-to-hide
and the thunder of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.”
Homer, The Iliad (8:71-77)
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Homer on Wikipedia
The Iliad on Wikipedia
The Trojan War on Wikipedia
The Iliad on Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, history, Homer, made into movies, poetry, war

Review 25: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This book puts me in mind of the time my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to go to my mother’s house in the Poconos during spring break.

It was back in the late nineteen-hundreds, and we were a college cadre of Dungeons & Dragons players who had a great campaign going. “Spontaneous Combustion” we called ourselves, because of our habit of blowing things up at any opportunity. Not a weekend would go by that we didn’t burn, destroy, incinerate or otherwise defile something in our imaginary world. But we were exhausted from the rigors of trying to balance our school life with our raping and pillaging. I say “raping” because it really belongs there with “pillaging,” though to my knowledge there was no raping of anyone. Dismemberment, yes, and I believe my character managed to give a lot of people syphilis, but in a rather unconventional way.

The plan was simple: we’d all go down to the house in the mountains for a few days, have marathon D&D sessions, and generally enjoy each others’ company in quiet isolation from the world. The house was an idyllic place – all trees and silence and snow, with the occasional deer or wild turkey. It would be a truly beautiful and serene place for us to rest our wearied bodies and stretch our wild imaginations.

So, much like Jerome K. Jerome and his companions, Harris, George and, of course, Montmorency, who decide in this book that the best tonic for their youthful ennui would be a boating trip up the Thames, we all headed to the mountains of Pennsylvania to soothe our troubled souls and to bond as friends and boon companions.

Also like Jerome, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency), we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

The three men (and the dog) of Jerome K. Jerome’s story are like most travelers throughout time since the idea of traveling for leisure was invented: they have a Plan. The Plan, of course, is to have a good time with one’s friends while avoiding anything resembling work. Unfortunately, the world will often have other plans. In the case of this book, those plans involved angry swans, annoying lovers, unusually busy inns, bad weather and general vehicular mishaps.

Now that I think on it, though, the trouble they had with their boat – and there was trouble – wasn’t quite as bad as the trouble I had with my car on our way to the role-playing retreat. Thanks to a strategically placed pothole, I managed to blow out both passenger side tires on my car. Not all at once, though. The rear one went flat right away, causing the small caravan to stop on the side of a New Scotland road while I panicked and my friend Jon fixed the tire. I would have done it myself, of course, but this was the first Misfortune to befall my beloved car – whose name, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was Phoenix – so it fell to Jon to do it. The rest of our crew were milling about patiently, except for Jim, who was lighting road flares so that anyone who happened to be driving down the sunlit, arrow-straight, bone-dry stretch of road might not kill us all.

The second flat tire occurred in a small town, the name of which I have forgotten. Or blocked out. There had been a slow leak, and I was on my way out of the liquor store (we had to buy liquor, there was no question of that, though whose idea it was to buy the Jeroboam of red wine escapes me) and Jon says, “Don’t get angry.”

“Why would I get angry, Jon?” I replied, doing a passable imitation of HAL from 2001.

It turned out that the other passenger side tire had gone flat while we were shopping. This left us in a small town on the outskirts of Nowhere, at 8 PM on a Friday night in need of a tire. By some miracle, the AAA man we called knew someone who could sell us a tire so we could get on our way. The man, who turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, was happy to sell it to us, though he wouldn’t actually put it on the car. Possibly because he wanted to save us money by not charging us for the labor, or possibly because my car – adorned with a variety of bumper-stickers and interesting rear-view amulets – looked like it belonged to an angry gay druid. Whatever his reasons, we got a new tire on the car and were grateful for his help.

In discussing any trip, of course, one must eventually come to the weather. For Jerome and his friends it was the rain that defied their best efforts to stay dry and forced them to find lodgings in towns where places to sleep were already scarce. For us, it was snow.

Snow is common in the mountains through early spring, but we were prepared for that. Mom had called the plow service and assured us that the driveway would be clear when we got there. When we arrived (having first worked out the Problem of the Mismarked Map), we found that the driveway had not, in fact, been plowed and the snow came up to mid-thigh. We parked on the street, slogged through the snow and went to open the door. When the key wouldn’t turn on the second lock, I pretty much gave up and just wandered around the snow saying, “She only gave me one key,” over and over again until someone managed to get the door open. After about twelve hours of cataclysmic travel, we were There. We had arrived! Our objective was obtained and our journey was done! We could finally unwind and relax.

One of the difficulties that we shared with Jerome and company was with food. They packed well enough, of course, with all kinds of comestibles, but like all people who are not used to preparing and procuring their own food, the comedy that resulted was plentiful. Beef without mustard, infinitely peelable potatoes, strange and unfathomable stews – any traveler who goes on a journey without having some kind of food misadventure has missed half the fun.

For us, it was steak. Get a group of men together and their appetites will turn to meat. Oh sure, there might be a few green, hippie, godless Commie men out there who lean towards tofu, but they’re really thinking of meat, no matter what they say.

We had bought some steaks – the best our college-student budgets could handle. But how to cook them? For in every group of meat-loving men, everyone is a meat expert. It’s a mark of True Masculinity, the ability to cook a steak, and the insinuation that one cannot cook a steak is tantamount to calling the man a queer sissy fairy-boy.

What resulted from this battle of culinary wills was a dinner that consisted, mainly, of shoe leather, with everyone holding grudges against everyone else for Not Doing It Right. This was about the same time I learned firsthand why one should never chug blackberry brandy.

The myriad of problems that people have when traveling are, unfortunately, universal. Poor planning, bad luck, nasty locals, bad weather, pigheadedness and the unfortunate tendency of the world not to live up to our expectations of it – all of these conspire to make travel an endurance trial. What surprised me the most about this book was how similar Jerome K. Jerome’s troubles had been to my own.

As bad as things can be at the time, though, there comes a time, afterward, when you can look back and laugh. Safe at home, Jerome took his eventful, awful trip up the Thames and made it into an incredibly funny classic of English literature. The fact that the book is over a hundred years old doesn’t take away at all from its comedy value because the humor comes from the universal nature of travelers and traveling. We all go on our journeys hoping for a relaxed, congenial time, but we tell stories about the mishaps, misadventures and difficulties. They are, paradoxically, the most fun part of the trip.

So I laughed along with Jerome and his friends, remembering all the while the infighting, bad food, bad moods, burnt countertops, spiked spaghetti sauce and everything else that made that one Spring Break trip so terribly, terribly memorable.

Although, all things being equal, I would have been just as happy if we’d had… y’know, a good time.

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“They cursed us – not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations and covered everything connected with us – good, substantial curses.”
– Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
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Three Men in a Boat at Wikipedia
Jerome K. Jerome at Wikipedia
Three Men in a Boat at Amazon.com
Three Men in a Boat at Wikisource

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Filed under classics, England, friendship, humor, Jerome K. Jerome, memoir, travel

Review 10: Meditations


Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I don’t read a lot of philosophy. I’m not sure why, since philosophy is really the province of the Liberal Arts graduate, and that’s what I am. Even worse, I was a political science major, and pol-sci is really just applied philosophy. You ask yourself questions like, “What is man’s obligation to man?” and “How can a society best benefit everyone involved in it?” and the next thing you know it’s three in the morning and you’re on your twelfth cup of Denny’s coffee.

Arguing the meaning of life in a diner, however, isn’t considered to be “real” philosophy. Philosophy these says means making up your own lexicon, creating words to describe concepts that you have spun out of the rhetorical ether – or, in philosophical terminology, “just made up.” So you get phrases in modern philosophy that go on for pages and pages, and have so many recursive clauses that you wind up having to go back to the beginning just to figure out where you left off.

So, if you’re like me – and it’s not impossible that you are – and you don’t feel like delving into the murkiest depths of intellectual waters, I can solidly recommend Marcus Aurelius’ immortal Meditations. There is no beginning, there is no end – you can open up the book anywhere, read for a while, and then put it down.

Written back in the 2nd century, Meditations is a collection of Marcus’ thoughts on life, existence, and how to be a good and moral man. Some of those observations are long, a page or two, but most of them are just a few lines. It’s kind of as though Marcus was hanging out at his camp in Carnuntum and he had a Thought. “Pen!” he would yell, “and paper!” He’d scribble his idea down and put it away to be filed away later. Whether he had any great plans for this collection of ideas, we’ll never know. He was an Emperor, of course, and it’s pretty normal for Emperors to want to make themselves look brilliant in history. But, as you read the book, you realize that Marcus’ mind wasn’t on history. Why bother, he’d say. It’ll all be the same in a thousand years anyway.

Death is ever-present in this text. When you start to worry about whether you’re living up to the example set by your ancestors, don’t bother – they’re dead and gone, and they couldn’t care less about who you have become. Are you always concerned with what people will think of you after you die? Why worry about it? You’ll be dead, for one thing, and beyond caring, and in any case whatever you have accomplished will be gone when the last person who remembers you is himself dead.

Marcus is very clear in his views on death: it’s part of nature, part of the ceaseless change which controls everything in this world. We came into this world, built from the atoms and essences of the dead who had gone before us, and one day we will return to that ceaselessly changing sea of Nature. Our lives are mere moments when measured against the vastness of eternity, and our powers are meaningless against those of the gods and the world that gave birth to us. “Remember that Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant,’ he said. “All the rest of his life’s either past and gone, or not yet revealed.”

In this way, there are some definite parallels between Marcus’ Stoic philosophy and Zen philosophy, though they’re centuries apart. Both Zen and Stoicism emphasize living in the present moment – not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. The only time in which you really exist is right now, and so it should be your only concern. Don’t let other people’s opinions of you govern your feelings – you can’t control them, you shouldn’t expect to be able to. You can, however, control yourself. “Will anyone sneer at me?” he asks. “That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer.”

Yes, this book is very quotable.

Where Stoicism and Zen would probably part ways is on Marcus’ reliance on Reason as a supreme governing power. He maintains that a man’s reason is the only thing that he can truly claim as his own, and that it should be ready at hand at all times. In any situation, presented with any person or object, the first thing that a person should do is turn his reason upon it. Figure out what it is, at its root, and once you know that, everything else will become clear.

I’m a big fan of Reason. We’re humans, and we’re bound to believe stupid things from time to time, but we’re also possessed of some very clever brains, and an excellent ability to turn those brains on to solving problems. But far too few people actually use those brains. We allow our passions to override our reason and end up doing stupid things to ourselves and each other. As hard as it may be, I’m with Marcus on this one – without reason, we’re not really humans. At best, we’re children, at worst we’re beasts. It is our duty to the world to understand it, without illusion or self-deception.

Frankly, I think Marcus would be very disappointed at how little progress we’ve made on this regard. I mean, it’s been nearly two thousand years, after all, plenty of time to deal with our superstitions and our illusions. On the other hand, I think he’d be flattered that his words had lasted so long and had influenced so many people.

It’s a great text, one that calls from the past to remind us of some very important truths – that we are here, now, and we are each in control of our own lives. We are possessed with a limitless ability to understand our universe, and to not use that reason is to waste the best part of ourselves.

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“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
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Marcus Aurelius at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikiquote
Meditations at Project Gutenberg
Meditations at Librivox
Meditations at Amazon.com

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Filed under Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, stoicism

Review 09: The Man Who was Thursday


The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

I lost my backpack thanks to this book.

It was years and years ago, probably my first winter in Japan, and I’d picked up this book at Maruzen. I had heard about Chesterton, mainly from the dedication page of Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens (“The authors would like to join the demon Crowley in dedicating this book to the memory of G.K. Chesterton. A man who knew what was going on.”) and the title looked weird enough to be entertaining. So, I was reading the book on the train, as I often do, and I had my backpack on the floor between my feet. When the train got to my station, I stood up, still reading, and walked off.

It wasn’t until I had to put the book down again to eat that I realized I no longer had my backpack.

This was no small problem, either – the bag had a lot of important stuff in it, not the least of which was my Palm Pilot with all my friends’ addresses on it. There were also about two dozen Christmas cards in there, along with other various and sundry things. And it was a good bag, too.

Long story short (too late), I never got the bag back. The staff at my school, and even one of the students, were kind enough to call the Keihan lost & found a few times to see if anyone had turned it in, but with no luck. And whoever got it didn’t do the obvious thing and look at the return address on every single one of those Christmas cards, nooo….

Ahem. I’m over it. Really.

My point is this: beware the seductive power of this book. Beware the enchantments laid upon it, and the dreamlike web that it weaves. For if you let it, this book will enrapture you, and gods help you if that happens.

The story is one that sucks you in almost from the first page, when two passionate poets argue the worth and detriment of society. Should it be torn down, and let chaos reign in the world? Is order the true glory of humanity, the crowning jewel of mankind? Should the existing paradigm be praised or destroyed, and is he who advocates the path of anarchy true to that path?

From that moment, that confrontation of poet-philosophers, we are drawn into a dark heart of true anarchy, where no one can be trusted to be who he appears to be. And not even the protagonist himself can be absolutely sure where his path will end.

Needless to say, I think this book was awesome on many levels. The whole thing reads like a dream, moving in and out of locales with odd fluidity, and it’s honestly hard to put it down. It has a great cast of characters, each one distinct and interesting and worth your attention, and a great ending that, while not making a whole lot of sense, is entirely fitting.

What’s really interesting is the modern applicability of this story. Its major theme is that of law versus anarchy, and when Chesterton wrote this back one hundred years ago in 1908 the anarchist movement was seen as a real threat. These people were not the angry kids, spray-painting Anarchy signs all over the place and listening to punk rock. The fringe radicals of the Anarchist movement advocated violence. They liked dynamite and struck terror in the hearts of the citizenry, much in the way that terrorists still do today. And like modern terrorists, they were driven by a twisted and dark ideology which placed their own motivations above society. In the world that Chesterton has made, the Law is in a perpetual battle with the forces of chaos, the dark and shadowy enemies who are always out to destroy us.

Sound familiar?

The hunt for terrorists is a great plot for any writer, and hundreds of them – good and bad – have used this trope as a way of telling a story. Chesterton, however, reached into the heart of that idea and found the uneasy twist that we are not always willing to deal with. He found the Nietzschean paradox about what happens when you battle monsters, and saw that it could very well be true. He has shown us that it is dangerous to act without knowing the truth, even if the truth isn’t what you want it to be.

Neil and Terry were right – Chesterton knew what was going on. This book is just as relevant today as it was a century ago, even if Chesterton never meant it to be. No matter what the subtitle to the book may be, and no matter how he may have meant it, the book is still valuable to us. Well worth reading.

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“Blessed are they who did not see,
But, being blind, believed.”
– from the Dedication, The Man Who was Thursday
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G.K. Chesterton at Wikipedia
The Man Who was Thursday full text at Wikisource
The Man Who was Thursday at Wikipedia
The Man Who was Thursday at Wikiquote
Mercury Radio dramatization of The Man Who was Thursday (direct mp3 link)
The Man Who was Thursday at Librivox
The Man Who was Thursday at Amazon.com

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Filed under anarchy, classics, fantasy, fiction, G.K. Chesterton