Category: literature

Going After Cacciato

After writing about Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, Sam Stevens (whose own novel Lone Crusader I reviewed earlier this year) recommended that I also check out another of O’Brien’s novels, Going After Cacciato. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I got a copy of the audiobook edition expecting another war novel along the lines of The Things They Carried.

I was about half-right. It’s partly a war novel, and partly a modern version of Around the World in Eighty Days.…

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New at Thermidor: The Things They Carried

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, reviewing Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, a collection of closely related short stories about his experience in the Vietnam War. It is my favourite war novel, and one of my favourite works of fiction generally. It’s even rather new by my standards, published in 1990, within my lifetime! Well, I was a small child at the time, but still. In my review of Lone Crusader, a new work by any standard, I quoted C. S. Lewis’s famous advice, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” My general rule is that a “new” book for this purpose is “written within one’s own lifetime.” Cicero said that “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever,” so the goal here is to avoid being temporally parochial-minded.

In any case, I’ve had a backlog of reviews to write, and I’m almost caught up. Next up will be a collection of treatises by Xenophon, after which I’ll start preparing for a Very Special Episode next month, which contains a momentous landmark for Everything is Oll Korrect!

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New at Thermidor: Hesiod

I have a new article over at Thermidor Magazine, in which I discuss not only Hesiod’s works, but his days, as well. More specifically, I give an overview of his epic poem The Works and Days, with a few words on Theogeny as well. If you can’t get enough of the Classics, I also wrote about Poetics, by Aristotle, over there a couple months ago, and I will likely have a follow-up of sorts in the near future.

In addition, I have a post drafted and ready continuing my series on Plato’s dialogues, this time covering Socrates’ Defense, more commonly called The Apology. If you’re new to this blog, I began with an introduction to the series with a short discussion of three dialogues, then covered Meno, and most recently, Euthyphro.…

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New at Thermidor: A Review of Lone Crusader

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, this time a review of Samuel Stevens’ novel Lone Crusader. You should, of course, focus on reading old books, but this is a new book that actually is worth reading, so check it out.

Excluding graphic novels, I’ve now reviewed twenty-one books written by living authors. Most of those, though, are in non-fiction. In literature, I’ve previously written about five. One of these is The Sea, by John Banville, which was good, though I don’t remember it very well, so apparently it’s not particularly memorable. More famous is Kafka on the Shore, by Murakami Haruki, which had some good moments but overall is badly overrated.

The best of this group is, rather surprisingly, Welcome to the N.H.K., by Takimoto Tatsuhiko. Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest to find, but if you can find a copy at a decent price I’d recommend it to almost anyone.

The other two are light novel series that I’d recommend, but only to those who already know what a “light novel” is. One is the Haruhi series (vols. 1-7Dissociation) by Tanigawa Nagaru, good but at this point looks like it’ll remain forever unfinished; the other is Spice & Wolf, by Hasekura Isuna, also enjoyable but I wish it had been authored by a better writer.

This is my second consecutive post at Thermidor, but I have two drafts just about ready for Everything. One is a continuation of my series on Plato’s Dialogues, the other is a review of the animated adaptation of The Hobbit. Yes, it will be better than the animated version of The Lord of the Rings, I’m happy to say.…

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The Man Who Was Thursday, Thermidor Magazine, and Expanded Horizons

I have a new post, a review of G. K. Chesterton’s classic novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, but in a first for me, it’s not posted here. You can find it over at Thermidor Magazine. In my previous post I think it came across that, though I like Chesterton, I’m not a big fan of his non-fiction. I’m more enthusiastic, though, about his novel.

In any case, Everything is Oll Korrect! is still and will always be my home base, as it were. I’ve even declined offers of posting elsewhere in the past because I like having all of my work in one place, but recently I’ve reconsidered that somewhat. In the past couple years I feel like I’ve expanded my web log’s purpose a bit beyond being simply a bibliophile’s journal. It’s still primarily that, but I also want, and to some extent have succeeded, in encouraging people to appreciate beauty and the arts. Occasional contributions at Thermidor, whose editor-in-chief has similar goals to my own, seems like a good way to further that cause.

Now, updates are a bit slow around here as it is, so dividing my work may slow it down even more. I’ll continue to announce it here at Everything when I do publish elsewhere, but I’ll also see if I can do something to pick up the pace of updates here. Perhaps reviewing more movies or other pieces of pop culture. We’ll see.

Finally, while you’re at Thermidor, be sure to take a look around; despite being a fairly new site, there are already several excellent articles to peruse. Here are a few of my favourites:

Enemies and Strangers,” by Nathan Duffy, on the friend/enemy distinction, immigration, and Christianity.

Up in Smoke,” by Jonathan, presenting a case against the legalisation of marijuana.

The Liberty of the Slaves,” by Doug Smythe, on the idealisation of liberty.

David Brooks: Pundit of the Last Men,” by P. T. Carlo, one of a few recent articles on the shallowness of American Conservatism.…

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The Book of Odes

Anyone who’s read any the Confucian canon’s Four Books will have heard much of the Book of Odes. Confucius and Mencius discuss it and reference it constantly, and Confucius even told his son, “If you do not study the Odes you will not be fit to converse with.” He explains why in another chapter that I’ve quoted and discussed previously, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign.” The Confucians place so much emphasis on the Odes and their study that one can only have the highest expectations going into the book, but this can also set some false expectations as to what they are exactly. Even Ezra Pound, the great poet, translator, and admirer of Confucius, once expressed confusion as to what exactly the Confucians saw in them.

The Odes, you see, are a collection of 305 folk songs and poems; traditionally Confucius himself is supposed to have compiled them, though there’s much doubt over this. Several were used in a ritual context, as one would expect from the Confucians’ treatment of them, and many do have some moral component, though more often than not, this isn’t explicit. For the most part, though, they’re simply folk songs, and look exactly like one would expect folk songs to look. Most are romantic, some praise famous heroes, a few deal with the hardship of a soldier’s life, and some decry tyrannical government. This is all well and good, and they’re certainly enjoyable, but one can also understand the reservations of people like Pound; it’s as if a great sage urged you to study the great moral instruction of a collection of songs, then handed you a copy of Anthology of American Folk Music. Take, for example, Ode 61, “The River is Broad.”

Who says that the River is broad?
On a single reed you could cross it.
Who says that Song is far away?
By standing on tip-toe I can see it.

Who says that the River is broad?
There is not room in it even for a skiff.
Who says that Song is far away?
It could not take you so much as a morning.…

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How to Write About a Book

What does an author do for a semi-landmark like this, my 300th post? 300 is a somewhat ungainly number; it’s two too many hundreds to be special, but not halfway to a fourth digit like 500. It was made famous at Thermopylae, but a web log hardly merits a comparison to an event of that stature. Nonetheless, since it’s taken over nine years to get to this point, I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity to pat myself on the back – hooray for me!

Anyway, I don’t claim to be a particularly talented writer, but after so many posts, most of them reviews of some kind at this point, I can say that I’m comfortable writing and fairly confident in my ability to talk about books, fiction or non-fiction. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some advice with those who’d like to get better at writing and talking about literature themselves.

This subject will most interest students, of course, and perhaps others thinking of starting a literature blog, or maybe just members of a book club. I can honestly say, though, that writing has been immensely helpful in my own intellectual growth. I’ve written elsewhere that good art is something to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food. The habits I’ve gained as part of running this blog have ensured that I digest what I read more fully, even for books that I don’t go on to review. So, I hope everyone will find at least some of my advice useful, and if you’ve given any thought to doing some writing of your own then by all means give it a shot, and don’t be discouraged if your early efforts turn out awkward. If you come away from this post with one main idea, let it be this: writing about literature (or non-fiction) is a learned skill, and like any other skill, you’ll only get good at it with practice.…

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

My introduction to Robert Heinlein came during a class I took back at college on the literature of science fiction, the same class where I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The timing was perfect, since I was a Libertarian at the time and Heinlein is fairly well-known for his broadly Libertarian views, which feature prominently in his work. That ideological sympathy wasn’t enough to make me a fan of the novel selected for the class, Stranger in a Strange Land, though. The story had some interesting moments, enough that I am glad that I read it, but it features a hippie version of Libertarianism with free love and such, which even then I had little patience for.

The novel was good enough, though, to make me check out another work of his shortly after, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The premise alone, a Libertarian revolution on the Moon against Terran authority, was like catnip to me at the time, and the book is full of ideas and speculation, mostly expressed through dialogue and the story itself, on what a more-or-less Libertarian society might look like. There is still some silly, “lolbertarian” stuff, like the rather unorthodox marriage arrangements, but also touches like private, commodity-backed currency competing with government-issued fiat, private courts, and a discussion on how to frame a constitution.

Now, so far this may sound less like a novel and more like a political allegory, like St. Thomas More’s Utopia or parts of Plato’s Republic, but a large reason why the novel works is that this is all presented naturally as part of the story or in the interest of world-building, and Heinlein never goes off on overly-lengthy tangents. So, the private currency is mentioned only in a few lines here and there to give an idea of how the colony is faring economically. The private courts only come up when a character is introduced by being dragged into one. The speech on framing a constitution does go on for a couple pages, but even that doesn’t extend longer than is needed for the plot. In short, there’s enough of these ideas to satisfy those who enjoy political speculation, but at no point does it feel preachy or interfere with the story. Those with an especially low tolerance of Libertarianism, or Liberalism more broadly, will almost certainly find some of the social Liberalism grating, as I did, but the rest of the story is good enough that I’m perfectly willing to overlook that. For what it’s worth, Heinlein himself seems to realise that even if this sort of society could come about, it’s not necessarily sustainable long-term.…

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The Hunting of the Snark

`Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. `I can explain all the poems that were ever invented — and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’

As I’ve talked about in previous posts, I think the epic poem is the greatest, noblest form in literature. One reason is the discipline required simply to complete writing one at all. Even a short poem demands much from a writer, and extending that over a lengthy narrative makes for an extraordinary quality filter, and is also why there are relatively few epics out there.

Such is the literary batting average for epics that if you wanted to argue that the three most famous epic poets, Homer, Virgil, and Dante Alighieri, are the three greatest writers in the Western canon overall, well, you’d have a powerful case. Now consider also some of the other famous epic writers – John Milton, of course, the authors of Beowulf, of Gawain and the Green Knight, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and G. K. Chesterton, among others, and you have a formidable literary roster. Nonetheless, those of us with truly refined taste in literature know that the greatest of all of these is, undoubtedly, Lewis Carroll.

Well, maybe Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits isn’t the greatest, but it is the one I enjoy the most, which is certainly worth something.

Now, everyone knows about Carroll’s Alice novels, which I wrote about last week, but Snark, though not obscure, and certainly more widely read than, say, Sylvie & Bruno, is generally only popular among Carrollians, and that’s too bad. In short, it’s exactly what one would expect an epic poem by Carroll to look like; imagine “Jabberwocky” extended to the length of a short book (about thirty-five pages in one edition I own), and you’ll be close to the mark. In style, it’s more-or-less a condensed, poetic Alice, and if that sounds appealing to you, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it.

Mervyn Peake’s illustration of the Bellman leading his crew
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Lewis Carroll, the Alice Novels, and Sensible Nonsense

`As to poetry, you know,’ said Humpty Dumpty, stretching out one of his great hands, `I can repeat poetry as well as other folk, if it comes to that — ‘
`Oh, it needn’t come to that!’ Alice hastily said, hoping to keep him from beginning.
`The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’
Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly.

When it gets late in the year and with Christmas coming soon, I always find myself in a nostalgic, and somewhat lazy, mood. It’s a time when my reading goes back to old favourites, and these past couple weeks I’ve revisited a couple of my favourite novels from yesteryear, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Now, I went through The Annotated Alice, which is my favourite edition of the novels, and in the introduction editor Martin Gardner makes what seems, at a glance, a startling claim: “The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child who tries to read the Alice books. One says ‘tries’ because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. […] It is only because adults […] continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality.”

There are two claims here, so let’s start with the first: are the Alice novels really no longer children’s books? To be honest, I didn’t read them as a child, but first read them when I was about fifteen, coincidentally the age Gardner mentions above, though I do remember liking Disney’s adaptation of them. I can say that it’s not hard to find editions of the novel aimed at children, or at least older children, as well as at least one alphabet book. Gardner says that “Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams.” The books are surprisingly violent in parts and almost every character is a jerk to some degree, with the White Knight (very likely a stand-in for Carroll himself) and perhaps the Cheshire Cat as the only exceptions, but I’d hardly call either Wonderland or the Looking-Glass world “nightmarish,” and how frightened a child is would depend on the child. I’d have probably loved it.

It is true that children today won’t catch much of the referential humour, but recognising the source of Carroll’s various song parodies and such isn’t critical to enjoying the parody, and even if a reader misses one joke, there are so many throughout the books that it won’t be long until he comes to another one he may enjoy. Take, for example, the parody “You Are Old, Father William,” which Alice repeats for the Caterpillar:

`You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
`And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head–
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

`In my youth,’ Father William replied to his son,
`I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.’

`You are old,’ said the youth, `as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door–
Pray, what is the reason of that?’

`In my youth,’ said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
`I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment–one shilling the box–
Allow me to sell you a couple?’

That’s the first half. Do you recognise the source? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter. Carroll himself, as the narrator, even shows some awareness that he’s writing for a young audience. During the trial at the end of Wonderland, for example, we have this incident, with authorial commentary:

Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

`I’m glad I’ve seen that done,’ thought Alice. `I’ve so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, “There was some attempts at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,” and I never understood what it meant till now.’

Some young children probably would be disturbed at stuffing guinea pigs into a sack and sitting on them, even if done by other animals about the same size as a guinea pig, but this is certainly no grislier than many fairy tales, at least in their traditional forms.

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