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New People Should Read Works by Old People in Order to Become Worthwhile Old People Some Day

Despite its remove from our own day, ancient civilization has a massive influence on modern society, and one of the fundamentals of a well-rounded education, which in this country is a rare thing,  is a familiarity with the classics (or to be more specific, Greco-Roman literature).  Certain names spring to mind when the classics are mentioned — Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Sophocles’ Theban Cycle — but the ancient world produced many works that are slightly less well-known, which capture the intelligence and passion of its peoples.

‘The Ancient World’ ended with the fall of Rome (476 CE), and all these works will predate that.  Not all the works on this list emerged from either Rome or Greece, and some could be said to be pre-ancient, being rather old.

We’d like to think this is a good list to start an education with at 17, round one out at 71 and fill in the holes any time in between.

Works and Days and Theogony
Hesiod
7th Century BCE

Even though some examples of literature predate him, Hesiod is widely considered by Classicists to be the father of Western literature.  Like his junior Homer, Hesiod’s primary accomplishment was to take various strands of oral tradition and synthesize them into a consistent written narrative.  Theogony, the result of this effort, is a complete history of the Greek mythic universe from its initial, primal state to the victory of the Olympian gods over their rivals, the Titans.  Though it reads a bit like the begats, Theogony is a must for any fan of Greek mythology, since it is probably the most important single piece of work on the subject.  Despite the singularity of its influence in later Greek culture, Theogony was certainly not a text to be understood literally; Hesiod all but owns up to making up segments and re-purposing older myths to fit his narrative.  There is great deal of insight into Greek religion in this work; we can see how even early on their views were complex, flexible, and highly subtle.

Hesiod’s only other complete surviving work, Works and Days, is even more fascinating, despite its decidedly non-mythic subject matter.  Written within the framing device of an admonishment to his brother, Works covers subjects as diverse as astronomy, sailing, farming, law and justice and (for the first time ever,) economics.  Through Works and Days we get a very real sense of what life was like in those days.  Even more than that, we get a sense of who Hesiod was as a person.  Moralistic, folksy, and something of a grouch, Hesiod emerges as a unique personality, but as one who could be found anywhere, in any time.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh
Author Unknown
21st Century BCE

Lost until the 19th Century, the oldest surviving epic poem has had something of a second wind since its rediscovery and now enjoys relatively large readership in the modern world.  Gilgamesh is, to put it quite simply, epic.  The King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god and one-third human (just think about that lineage for a moment…) tyrannizes his people in the name of progress and, to combat the gods, sends the beastman Enkidu.  After a knock-down, drag-out fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu make peace and get bromantic, and together they have many awesome adventures, including fighting giant scorpion-men, forest demons, thunderbirds, and other staples of the 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.  Enkidu dies tragically, and the rest of the story involves Gilgamesh traveling to the most distant points in the universe on an unsuccessful quest to achieve immortality.  Like I said: epic.  But, also, The Epic of Gilgamesh is surprisingly nuanced, offering a commentary on the issues facing civilization as it first became urban-based. The story contends with issues of morality, civil society, friendship, environmental stewardship, the responsibilities leaders have to their subjects, and finally, it offers a touching meditation on the inevitability of death.

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The Birds
Aristophanes
5th Century BCE

Aristophanes is regarded as the first notable playwright to perform comedy, and the genre owes the same debt to him that tragedy does to Sophocles.  His plays, of which there are several, are all highly satirical, often bawdy and off-color, and they all offer scathing criticisms of Athenian society (most of which would ring familiar to us today).  The Birds, which was a bit of a sensation in its time, offers a Swiftian combination of fantasy and satire and is really quite enjoyable in print, and even more to watch performed.  Pisthetaerus, an Athenian everyday Joe, is transported up in to the sky where he encounters the avian denizens of Cloudcukooland.  At first an outsider in a comic utopia, Pisthetaerus soon comes to rule through application of common sense, and with his loyal bird subjects he soon overpowers the gods themselves and is declared the supreme monarch of the universe.  On top of the play’s absurdity, The Birds is also noted for its unusually realistic character development — all the protagonists are average people with realistic, fully realized relationships.

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The Golden Ass
Apulieus
2nd Century AD

To my eye, The Golden Ass appears as the most ‘modern’ of the works on this list, containing many of the qualities and details we expect to see in modern and postmodern literature.  Written as an epic picaresque, the story starts with the virile and stupid Lucius witnessing a forbidden ritual in witch-haunted Thessaly, and accidentally getting turned into a donkey as a result thereof.  For the remainder of the story we witness Lucius in various forms of servitude and degradation, until eventually, and after many interludes, the Goddess Isis intervenes to restore a wiser Lucius to his human form.  The Golden Ass is perhaps the only work in the Roman canon to examine the condition of the lower classes with any sympathy, but is also filled with (very bawdy) humor, biting satire, realistic and in-depth detailing of events and customs, archaic (even for the time) and elaborate choice of words, and a hearty dose of esoteric mysticism.  Robert Graces does a superb translation, but many other more recent interpretations are also worth a look.

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Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
Amenaa the Excellent of Finger (attributed)
Middle Kingdom Period (2055 BCE to 1650 BCE)

Generally regarded as the first fantasy story, Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is an Ancient Egyptian piece of literature that stands separate from either folk stories or religious myths.  Relatively simple in its telling, the story follows a sailor shipwrecked on an island in the Nile and his extended parlay with a wise bearded serpent.  The sailor is eventually rescued, and the serpent rewards him with a treasure to bring the Pharaoh.  This story obviously predicts future tales with a similar theme, Sinbad the Sailor and Robinson Crusoe springing to mind, and it also contains a notable example of that ultimate staple of fantasy, the Dragon.

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The Ramayana
Valmiki (attributed)
4th Century AD

It’s sort of silly to pass The Ramayana off as a ‘lesser-known’ classic, since billions are intimately familiar with it not only as a religious text but also as an adventure story.  Even more impressive than Gilgamesh in terms of its blockbuster epic-ness.  Over 1,300 pages long (making it the same length as a medium-sized fantasy novel,) The Ramayana is the life story of the legendary Indian king and avatar Rama as he matures and establishes his kingdom, reaching its climax with the war between Rama’s forces and those of the demon-king Ravana.  Huge battles, complex political drama, and a phantasmagorical cast of characters all make The Ramayana the Star Wars of classic literature.  If you like Bollywood cinema, there are some cheestastic television adaptations worth watching.

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Hymn of the Robe of Glory
Judas Thomas (attributed)
1st Century AD

The Hymn of the Robe of Glory, commonly ascribed to the Apostle Thomas (Doubting Thomas), but probably not written by him, represents a rare and fascinating example of ancient gnostic literature.  Devotional, and certainly spiritual but not necessarily religious in tone, Hymn of the Robe of Glory is the account of a traveler who travels far from home and gets lost in Egypt, forgetting his past and his familial connections.  Metaphorically, the hymn represents the gnostic attitude towards the world and the human condition, emphasizing humankind’s forgetting of its true spiritual nature as a chief cause of evil.  More than that though, the story is immediately visceral, and gives the reader a heartbreaking sense of the loneliness and desolation the author experiences.

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Medea
Euripides
5th Century BCE

It’s probably not inflammatory to note that for all their sophistication and enlightened thinking the Ancient Greeks were not big on feminism.  Medea, which was not a big success in its time, is a notable exception, acknowledging the unequal treatment women faced in Greek society.  Medea, barbarian princess and granddaughter of the Sun, is betrayed by her husband (Jason the Argonaut, who like most Greek heroes, was apparently not a nice guy).  Choosing to avenge herself on her wayward ex, she kills Jason’s new wife and murders her own children, and that’s the story of Medea.  Of all the various Greek tragic plays, this is my favorite. Besides Medea being all-around one of my favorite women of Greek Mythology, the story is dark, tragic and poignant without excessive moralizing, and it addresses issues of social justice and equality in society (though some critics would say we in the modern day make too much of this).

 

-Kevin

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Very Special Sleuths -Part I-

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1...

To commemorate the runaway popularity of 'The Girl Who...' series, otherwise known as the Millennium Trilogy, and also the glut of Agatha Raisin mysteries we have in our store, I have decided to put together a list dedicated to mystery fiction. Though the varieties are endless, mystery fiction in general follows a rather strict formula that dictates the narrative.

Usually, the first pages involve an impossible, or at least unsolvable crime, and the protagonist (who is either a police detective, private investigator, or Jessica Fletcher-like busybody inexplicably given access to crime scenes the world over,) is called in to solve the crime.

They do, inevitably, but not before being stymied by at least one dead lead and weathering B-plot personal difficulties that eventually give them the strength to overcome the heavy and solve the crime.

The crime itself, having been solved, is usually revealed to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors regardless of how impossible it at first seemed, and the hidebound rule of ‘fair play’ requires that clues to solve the mystery have all been discovered and explained sufficiently for a smart reader to solve the case.

Usually, all this will happen over twelve chapters, sometimes more if the author has a talent for fluff.  Naturally, the strict format most mysteries follow is not to the genre’s detriment; legions of passionate mystery fans will agree that the formula most of these books follow is extremely satisfying, and by adhering to a sense of ‘what works’ in terms of plotting, the author is free to focus more on aspects of the story, like style of writing, setting, and character.  And character, perhaps, more than the plot, setting, or the mystery itself, is what makes a reader want to come back for more.

The protagonist of any given mystery story, besides being required to live in an atmosphere of death and deceit at all times, must have something unique and, daresay, quirky about them.  Rabbis, Confucian judges, Welsh monks, bed and breakfast owners, and all other kinds of individuals have been featured as the sleuth of some mystery series or another, and it seems inevitable that mystery fiction sleuths will grow ever more colorful and bizarre against all expectation of realism.  As a treat to mystery readers, and to honor those unlikely (fictional) geniuses who labor endlessly to solve equally unlikely and contrived crimes, I offer a list of the ten (well, eleven) most interesting and colorful sleuths of detective fiction.

Here is the first installment.

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1. Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton)
The Agatha Raisin mysteries belong to the sub-genre of mystery fiction known as ‘Cozies’.  To wit, they occur in a bucolic, countrified setting and play down the murder and gore aspects, remove elements of danger and harm to the detective, and generally aim for good, clean fun without falling into the grittier aspects of the genre.  Think the classic ‘Miss Marple‘ mysteries, or perhaps ‘Rosemary &Thyme‘.  The Agatha Raisin mysteries fit nicely in to this sub-genre, but in some ways are a deconstruction of them.  The titular detective, Agatha Raisin, is an older woman in the vein of classic cozy detectives, but is herself not a cozy type of person.  Moody, abrasive, man-crazy, and restless in her little town, Agatha Raisin is a far more fleshed out and believable character than other notables of the genre, and usually more entertaining.

2. Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton)
A popular character from Victorian literature, Father Brown was written as a deliberate alternative to Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes, like Poirot, is a haughty eccentric who champions reason and observation as the key to solving a mystery. Father Brown, on the other hand, is a diminutive, modest priest who comports himself as a bumpkin and utilizes his talents of understanding and intuition in his cases.  Chesterton based the character on a priest friend of his , whose years of hearing confession had instilled in him a deep understanding of human nature, and most Father Brown stories have a philosophical aspect to them, with the crime being an ontological puzzle as well as a logistical one.  Although some of Chesterton’s ideas have not aged well, the Father Brown mysteries are still highly thoughtful, enjoyable, ornate, and surprising, and the good father himself is as likable a character as one could hope for.

3. Lord Darcy (Randall Garrett)

Imagine a world where Richard the Lionheart remained King of England, and for some reason, as a result, magic existed in the place of technology.  Now imagine a detective living in that world capable of utilizing magic for the sake of forensic examination, who goes on tosolve mysteries that, despite the mystical nature of the setting, are all by and large mundane whodunits with realistic solutions.  Take that, and add a bit of James Bond-type espionage, and you have the Lord Darcy novels.  Lord Darcy himself is a suave, gallant aristocrat who is not terribly interesting, but he represents a blending of the classic genre detective with elements of the pulp action hero, and to boot, he’s a sorcerer.  As I’ve said before, fantasy fiction is not for everyone, but if you are a mystery fan who can open your mind to a bit of Tolkiensque world-building, with dazzling, relentless humor and inventiveness, then I would suggest giving these novels a try.

4. Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane)

Maybe you don’t want your detective fiction with a side of fantasy.  Maybe you want the real stuff: hard-boiled, gritty, hyper-realistic, cynical, and violent detective fiction.  Then welcome to Mike Hammer’s world.  Mike Hammer takes the qualities of such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but dials them up to the extreme and adds in a characteristic streak of misogyny, sociopathic violence, and a total contempt for the machinery of justice.  Mike Hammer does not solve crimes through detection, intuition, or any other mental capabilities, he solves them through copious use of his fists, feet, and any blunt object at hand.  If you like Mike Hammer, or support his tactics of investigation then you are probably missing the point, but Spillane’s character has influenced a whole school of detective fiction and does not seem to be waning in popularity.  The key, perhaps, lies in how deeply enjoyable such an unpleasant character can be once you find humor in his awfulness.

5. Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene)

All-American girl.  Wonderteen.  Idol to millions, proto-feminist icon, and a formidable fighter when she has that Maglight at hand.  Just remember, the secret in the old clock was not political correctness.

Too Bee Cuntinuuued… Duh Duh Duh Daah!

-Kevin

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Kevin Makes Another List

Authors that Should Have Received The Nobel Prize for Literature (But Didn’t)

Like the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prize for literature is the highest honor an author can receive, with the added distinction of being an award for a lifetime of work, which comes with a cash prize of a cool million.  And like the Oscars, the decision-making process when it comes to picking the recipient can seem capricious, petty, or downright bizarre, and many of the best authors of the last century lost that prize to inferior (in my view) contemporaries, or were simply ignored.  Why don’t you make this list longer, as surely it can go on forever, by adding your own in comments!

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1. Jorge Luis Borges

A fairly notorious case of the Swedish Academy ignoring an author for their political beliefs, Borges was turned down time and time again for the prize, for his conservative political views and support of South American dictatorships the fervor of which, perhaps over-exaggerated by his critics.  A list of those authors influenced by Borges would include all South American writers, all science-fiction and fantasy writers (including, arguably, Tolkien), all postmodern writers and some modern ones, and perhaps any authors whose fiction contains a tiger, a mirror, a maze, or any combination of the three. Generally, the decision to pass over Borges for the award is reason numero uno that many consider the Academy to be out of touch with prevailing literary opinion, and a quarter century after his death the omission still raises hackles.

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2. W.H. Auden

Auden, who was one of the best poets in the English language and one of the few Modernists to actually deal with modernity instead of treating it as some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, was allegedly passed over because he made some rather scandalous remarks about Dag Hammarskjold.  Since the Academy is comprised entirely of Swedes, you can see where this might have been a miscalculation on Auden’s part if he’d really desired the prize.

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3. Vladimir Nabokov

Best known for a novel that inspired a song by The Police, Nabokov was hugely influential among high-minded writers everywhere, and wrote in a style that expressed both a great deal of wit and playfulness while still being dense and rigorous as anyone could imagine.  While Borges was perhaps more influential in terms of style and theme, Nabokov set the high-water mark  for four generations of authors after him.  He was nominated once but two Swedish authors took it home that year instead.  Both those authors were on the deciding committee.

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4. Graham Greene

Another also-ran, Greene probably confused the political-minded Academy with his eclectic beliefs, which combined strident (even if often laissez-faire,) Catholicism with secular humanism and a flirtation with Socialism.  Greene, who wrote about ugly characters in ugly situations, grappled with the problems of suffering and unhappiness and, although he depicted many characters that wanted badly to be good and just, his books are filled with ambivalence and confusion in the face of evil.  The effect of all this is that his world is rather bleak and unlikable, but that’s the point.

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5. Mark Twain

Mark Twain was passed over for the prize not once, not twice, but ten times.  From my understanding, he really could have used the money.

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6. Joan Didion

Didion’s work, whether fiction or truth, sheds more light on the trends, culture, aspirations, and interior life of 20th Century America than practically anyone else I care to name.  Her prose is lucid, clear, and spare, and at times it touches a rare perfection in her prosody.  And, as anyone who has read her knows, she is unbelievably brutal; painful, heartbreaking disenchanting and sometimes just plain mean.  The Academy probably has no plans to offer her the award any time soon.

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7. Haruki Murakami

An author who has blossomed into an international superstar of mind-boggling proportions, and one that has become an icon for the protean, conflicted, deeply imaginative character of modern Japanese culture.  He’s still young(ish) so he might get it some day, but his serious-minded contemporary Kenzaburo Oe already scored the award a little while ago, so don’t count on it.

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8. Thomas Hardy

What do the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster have that Thomas Hardy’s don’t? Answer: brief glimmers of happiness.  Thomas Hardy is best remembered as a Naturalist writer, but I think his work contains elements of the Gothic as well as a sense of transcendentalism that is often overlooked.  Life is tough in a Hardy novel, but that’s because it’s tough in real life too. Hardy never pulled his punches and endured scandal for it.  He deserved the award doubly, since his career as a poet was as fruitful as his career as a novelist.

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9. Robert Graves

Though he was, in my opinion, a second-rate scholar, Graves defined the genre of the historical novel and wrote some of the best of them, when not writing otherwise on every subject under the sun, and some, like his quasi-fictitious White Goddess, under the moon.  Graves’ status as a polymath, as well as his fearless unconventionality, honesty, and the evocation of the wonder and mystery of the human experience should have won him the prize. But didn’t.

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10. Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon is one of my favorite authors, perhaps the greatest American author of all time, even if his books are impossible to figure out, frequently obscene and loaded to the gills with lame jokes, shaggy dog stories, and esoteric minutiae so lovingly detailed it takes several Ph.D’s to know what is going on.  But, even if that doesn’t win accolades, he’s gotten a lot more lucid with his later novels and people are actually starting to figure out what he’s talking about.  Plus, he wrote ‘A Journey in to the Mind of Watts’, which is regarded as one of the best essays written on race in 1960’s America.  If he ever did get the award, it would mean he would have to leave his Salingeresque seclusion and actually make a public appearance, something he has never done in his career.  Here’s hoping.

-Kevin

[Unsolicited, Somewhat Related Editor’s Note: The only writer since 1901 who refused to accept the prize for Literature was Jean-Paul Sartre. You’re probably not surprised. Good. I hate to break it to Kevin, but Pynchon, if he were to win, would probably follow suit. Which would be appropriate. In lieu of the cash prize, however, (which would be the real pity to waste,) all he’d have to do is sell his toilet on ebay. ]

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