Books Before the Blog: Around the World in 80 days

It’s time for the ‘A-Z challenge’- a post every day in April (except Sundays) working up through the alphabet. This year I will be writing about books that I read before I started this blog, that were important to me in some way. The vast majority are ones I still have on my bookshelf today, despite a move in house and sometimes many years since I first read it.


V

V is for Verne
Book: Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne

What is it about:
Phileas Fogg, and English gentleman, and his Valet Passepartout attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days to win a bet. A policeman mistakes him for a criminal and follows him, threatening to delay him too long whenever he catches him. Along the way they get into various escapades in avoiding capture, rescuing a damsel in distress, running out of fuel at sea etc

When I first read this book:
In year 12, we spent a while on Jules Verne in French class. I probably only read sections of it- that we had to translate, but I reckon a page of French counts as a chapter of English right?

Why it is important to me:
We covered a few Jules Verne books that year. I seem to remember watching the Jacki Chan version of Around the World in 80 days, and I won a copy of an old version of Journey to the Centre of the World in a group project competition we entered. It is a good fun story, which was nice in a year where I found something not to like about most of the projects we had to do (that French class brought out my disgruntled teenager side for some reason- I was otherwise a model pupil).

Who should read it:
People who live classics, and adventure stories

Books Before the Blog: Lord of the Rings

It’s time for the ‘A-Z challenge’- a post every day in April (except Sundays) working up through the alphabet. This year I will be writing about books that I read before I started this blog, that were important to me in some way. The vast majority are ones I still have on my bookshelf today, despite a move in house and sometimes many years since I first read it.


T

T is for Tolkein
Book: Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein

What is it about:
Frodo is a hobbit, who inherits a ring that makes you invisible. Gandalf the wizard recognises it as The Ring- an immensely powerful ring the Dark Lord Sauron forged to rule over all the other powerful rings and leaders that existed. Defeated during a battle that caused the ring to eventually end up in the hobbits hands, after a few changes of owner along the way, Sauron is amassing power again and wants the ring back. It is decided the only way to avoid Sauron taking over entirely is to destroy the ring. This of course can only be done where it was forged, at the heart of Sauron’s lands. An epic journey and fight against evil ensues.

When I first read this book:
I was around 9 or 10 years old.

Why it is important to me:
I remember finding the first ending (what happens to Frodo) sad. When I felt sufficiently recovered, I read the extra bit about Aragon and Arwen’s life (and deaths) which was also sad. I think I was depressed for about 3 days after finishing it. It is the first time I can remember a book affecting me as much, although in later years I noticed that while I loved reading fantasy novels, I often felt unhappy afterwards. I realised that there is always such purpose in the books- the main characters always have something important they are trying to do or stop or reach. Real life in comparison can seem pointless and bland. In late teenage years I decided to moderate my reading- I don’t allow myself to read so many books that I no longer enjoy real life. With movies a useful technique is to watch two movies in a row- one that may be emotional or depressing first, then a happy romantic comedy or feel good documentary afterwards. With books the best technique I have found is just spacing things out.

Who should read it:
Fantasy lovers

Books Before the Blog: the metamorphosis

It’s time for the ‘A-Z challenge’- a post every day in April (except Sundays) working up through the alphabet. This year I will be writing about books that I read before I started this blog, that were important to me in some way. The vast majority are ones I still have on my bookshelf today, despite a move in house and sometimes many years since I first read it.


K

K is for Kafka
Book: the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

What is it about:
Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who provides for his parents and sister, awakens one day to find he has been transformed into a giant insect. He is, obviously, unable to go to work. His family react with varying levels of disgust and compassion, and have to learn to both make their own money and to look after Gregor. Gradually Gregor starts to accept some of the new habits and urges his insect body gives him, despite his mind remaining human. Gradually the family forget his previous humanity and come to view him with less compassion, and more disgust.

When I first read this book:
A couple years ago, I was given the Meowmorphosis for Christmas- as a well known cat lover, there are always a few cat themed items. I decided to read the original work before I read the spoof. In case anyone was thinking of doing this, I recommend you don’t read them one after the other- the Meowmorphosis is largely a copy of the metamorphosis- about half the book is word for word excepting a few descriptive words changes so as to describe Gregor as a cat not an insect. Reading them one after the other thus becomes very repetitive.

Why it is important to me:
I wouldn’t rank this book as one of my favorites. But it is considered one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century. There are several themes that can be discussed- alienation, dichotomy of mind and body, change, acceptance, the absurdity of life. To me there were two issues that stood out. Firstly, how Gregor has been trapped by his caring for his family- trapped in a job and a routine he didn’t like. This transformation was a horrible thing to happen, but it freed him from their dependence. And out of necessity they became self sufficient- implying that really he never should have had to be their provider in the first place.
Secondly, the depiction of illness and the reactions of those around us to it. Gregor’s metamorphosis into a despicable, degraded animal could be considered a representation mental illness or chronic disease. People often feel worthless, guilty, disgusting, helpless and hopeless when they have either mental or severe chronic diseases. And the people around them exhibit the same reactions that his family did- there are those who want to help and understand but just can’t like the mother. There are those who commit themselves to acting like a caring, supportive friend or family member, like the sister, but secretly have negative feeling towards the illness and often the person themselves. This usually comes out eventually- unless you truly feel compassionate, understanding and loving to a person, it doesn’t matter how much you wish to be that person for them- you will burn out and hate them eventually. And then there are people like the father who are openly disgusted or irritated by the changes and behaviours they see in the unwell person from the start.

Who should read it:
People who like classics and feeling educated.

Books Before the Blog: A Christmas Carol

It’s time for the ‘A-Z challenge’- a post every day in April (except Sundays) working up through the alphabet. This year I will be writing about books that I read before I started this blog, that were important to me in some way. The vast majority are ones I still have on my bookshelf today, despite a move in house and sometimes many years since I first read it.


C

C is for Charles, Christmas and Carol
Book: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

What is it about:
Ebenezer Scrooge is a tight-fisted, cynical, heartless man who thinks only of making money, at the expense of the people around him. His old business partners, the brothers Marley, have died and he has no friends. One Christmas eve, he is visited by three spirits- the ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future. They show him how he came to be as he is, what effects his actions are really having on those around him, and his bleak future if he continues as he is. It is a magical Christmas story of second chances.

When I first read this book:
My first experience of this book was when I was about seven or eight. I acted in a musical production of it. It was my first musical, and I played Fanny, Scrooge’s sister, and a few chorus parts. I also loved the Muppet’s Christmas Carol- it was my favourite Christmas movie, and still rates as one of the best today. I first read the book a couple years ago. The book itself would have to be my favourite Dickens’ book- probably just because it is the most readable.

Why it is important to me:
The timeless, magical Christmas story will always have a place in my Christmas celebrations.

Who should read it:
People who like nice, magical Christmas stories- the type of book you would read snuggled up by the fire with a hot chocolate.
People who like moral children’s stories.

Books Before the Blog: Pride and Prejudice

It’s time for the ‘A-Z challenge’- a post every day in April (except Sundays) working up through the alphabet. This year I will be writing about books that I read before I started this blog, that were important to me in some way. The vast majority are ones I still have on my bookshelf today, despite a move in house and sometimes many years since I first read it.


A.jpg

A is for Austen

Book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

What is it about:
Jane is the second oldest daughter of a gentleman who unfortunately had all girls. He had always planned on having a son who could inherit and look after them, but now with his estate looking to be entailed away to a distant (and horrible cousin), the girls will have to find husbands who can provide for them.
The two eldest girls are both fairly sensible people if a little different in temperaments- Elizabeth is witty but at times a bit harsh, and her older sister Jane is lovely, gentle and always sees the best in people. Two of her younger sisters, and her mother, are silly, love sick, superficial girls. The final younger sister, Mary, is religious and overly serious. These characters provide the spread of different ways of approaching relationships.
There are love interests, clashes between strong personalities when one party thinks themselves more elite, dances, heartbreak, marriage, romantic tension, and funny caricatures of various follies.

When I first read this book:
I first read this book sometime in high school. I am not sure whether I read it first, or watched the BBC 6 hour version first, but I quickly became a fan.

Why it is important to me:
If you have been reading my blog for a while, you may have picked up that I really quite like Austen and Shakespeare. Pride and Prejudice was my first Austen book, and came after a time when I had been reading quite a few classics. Compared to some of the other classic authors (*ahem Dickens* she coughs indistinctly), Austen was breezy and lighthearted, with descriptions that got to the point and painted a picture in a paragraph rather than a page. Pride and Prejudice has been an old standby to read or watch when feeling morose or bored.

Who should read it:
If you are interested in reading the classics but haven’t done so yet as you are afraid of it being too hard or long.
If you like period romances.

Julius Caesar- Shakespeare

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

I saw an abridged version of Julius Caesar at our local Fringe Festival this weekend. I have mostly read the comedies and tragedies, and have only started learning about the history plays recently, so I saw it as a good opportunity to go see it.

Interestingly, this theatre company is made up entirely of women. This is a play that is pretty much entirely about men and the politics and wars between them, and this probably made it easier to change genders compared with the comedies where there are romantic couples, fathers, mothers, sisters and so on. Change the pronouns, and change brother to sister, and the only change in thinking the audience has to do is accept a world where women rule and carry the high positions. It didn’t seem odd at all to me.

Julius Caesar follows a few key players in the conspiracy to kill Caesar- from when Brutus is being convinced to join them, to the act and then on to the retribution afterwards. Brutus thinks deeply before (s)he acts, and only does so believing that it is what is right for Rome. It appears that all went to plan, but the fickleness of the public, and the brilliance of Marc Antony’s speech turns the course of history towards inexorable doom for the conspirators. Although perhaps not entirely inexorable- there were a few silly mistakes and different choices that still could have been made after the act that might have helped. (note- killing yourself based on second hand information is never a good idea.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Like many Shakespeare plays, a lot of people die, or talk about dying. This play asks what is honourable about death and how you face it- can it be honourable to kill a leader, is it more honourable to kill yourself than to let yourself be killed, is it dishonourable to fear death.

And I will leave you with a quote, that you may see a reference to in a recent young adults book and movie, which I think could be taken as a piece of advice.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

We may not be able to control our death, but we can take charge of our lives.

The Prince- Machiavelli

Throughout Time reading list

How obtained: free kindle version


 

I was pleasantly surprised by The Prince. A 16th century treatise on politics and ethics of war and diplomacy, I expected it to be a bit dry or hard to get through, but it really wasn’t. It took maybe four hours to read the version I had (estimating here as I read it in bits and pieces in between doing other things), which included an introduction and a couple chapters at the end on Duke Valentino and the life of Castruccio Castracani.

I was intrigued to find out in the introduction that this work was the origin of the term Machiavellianism- which refers to both “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct” (in a very negative way), and in psychology “a duplicitous interpersonal style, a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and personal gain” (kind of like a psychopath). The author of the introduction thinks that the associations and connotations of the term over time were much strongly negative than the original work warrents. And I would agree-the advice outlined in this book is self serving and based on utalitarianism at the expense of other ethical principles. (Or in other words, most of what Machiavelli is advocating is to choose the method with the best outcome regardless of whether or not it is a good/kind/honest etc method.) But it makes a lot of sense, and he often shows why the way he is advocating is better- the harm that comes from the alternatives.

 

There were lots of quotes that show his style of reasoning and ethics- it was hard to choose just a few:

because [men] are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.

it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.

A prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

severities … may be called properly used,  that are applied at one blow and are necessary to one’s security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects. The badly employed are those which, notwithstanding they may be few in the commencement, multiply with time rather than decrease.

In seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits…For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer.

Either a prince spends that which is his own or his subjects’ or else that of others. In the first case he ought to be sparing, in the second he ought not to neglect any opportunity for liberality.

Truth bombs:

The innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived

And there is nothing wastes so rapidly as liberality, for even whilst you exercise it you lose the power to do so, and so become either poor or despised, or else, in avoiding poverty, rapacious and hated.

Nevertheless he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable.

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Amazingly there are some deontological type ethics he believes in: while it is ok to kill all your opponents after you have won a principality by war or by political back stabbing, it is not ok to trick them into coming to dinner (or something similar) and kill them all in order to take over. 😛

Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AESCHYLUS – AGAMEMNON

Aeschylus- Agamemnon
Throughout Time reading list
How obtained: free kindle version


Agamemnon is a fairly complicated story, but most of the story does not take place before the audience’s eyes- most of it is told in long monologues. At the beginning of the play, Clytemnestra and the watchmen see the beacons being lit, which means the war in Troy is over and Agamemnon is heading home. The watchmen are happy, Clytemnestra not so much. Her husband sacrificed their daughter to placate a god before he left, and she has not forgiven him. She has also taken a lover. After a few long monologues about this and the war, Agamemnon does in fact return. He has brought a concubine with him, Cassandra, who has been cursed with the ability to prophesy but never have anyone believe her. Agamemnon argues about either going inside the house or not. He goes in and is killed by his wife. Cassandra debates about going in- she knows she will be killed so doesn’t want to go in, but also knows it is fate- to hey, it will happen, may as well get it over with. She goes in and is killed. The children escape- and live another day to avenge their father and prolong the never ending cycle of bloodshed.

So pretty much all that happens is some people talk for a while about the past, and then other people debate entering a house, and then they die. The end. But it is still a good example of common themes in ancient Greek literature- particularly the cycle of death that means there is always someone else to avenge.(an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind).

Doesn’t seem like much, but apparently the play was revolutionary- it was the first play to have multiple characters interacting with each other, rather than just with the chorus (who represent the audience, the towns people etc, who may sing songs, or ask important questions of the main character that help get points across). This increased the ability to show conflict and drama.

Oedipus Rex -Sophocles

Oedipus rex -Sophocles
Throughout Time reading list
how obtained: free kindle version


Back to the beginning again! This time we journey to the beginning of theatre. In ancient Greece, theatre was a religious experience dedicated to Dionysus, the god and wine of altered states (whether that be from the wine, or from religious ecstasy). They were usually put on as part of a festival, with thousands coming to watch a large number of plays. At the end of the festival, judge’s would vote to decide which was the best play. Playwright were not the struggling artists we think of today- they were often politicians, businessmen, and leaders of the community.

Sophocles was believed to have authored 123 plays. Only seven are still in existence. The most famous would be the Oedipus trilogy, of which I read the first. While really they should probably be read together, as the story continues on straight away, I must admit that starting at a point of knowing nothing about ancient literature, it is a bit hard to be quite that enthusiastic! So I plan to read one of each author, find out a bit about the context and history, and then be able to read the rest at some unknown time in the future with more insight. 😛

The story of Oedipus rex was not invented by Sophocles- it would have been well known to Athenians already. Oedipus is king, after having saved the kingdom from a Sphinx by answering her riddle. He had been running from home to avoid fulfilling a prophesy that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother. Unfortunately he was unaware that he was adopted, and that staying home would have been the safest course. He was a pretty good king, but some kind of curse has fallen on the land. it comes to light that the God’s are unhappy that the old king’s death went unavenged, so Oedipus determines to find the man responsible.

This play is, compared to some of the ancient writings, not too hard to read. I did find it useful to watch the crash course video first. I am happy I have read it because, like with many of these olds texts, there are several things that are referenced in modern culture,which find their origins in it. There are links between all times of history- it is not just genetics that are passed down through the generations, but ideas, stories and values.

The Odyssey- a Tale of Two Translations

The Odyssey- Homer
Throughout time reading list
How obtained: free ebook (amazon.com, project gutenburg  etc) and MIT online resources


 

Nearly three thousand years old, the Odyssey is the second oldest western story we have recorded (after it’s prequel, the Iliad). It is an epic- a poetical story of heroes and tragedy, gods and feasts.

I started off the journey of reading the odyssey with Alexander Pope’s translation, which I had downloaded onto my kindle. It is written in rhyming couplets, with a summary paragraph at the start of each chapter. This was helpful because often there would be very long, roundabout ways of saying things, made worse by the need to occasionally order words out of the usual order in order to make a rhyme, and break lines in the middle of a sentence. I sometimes found myself tempted to just read the summary paragraphs. On the other hand, when in the right mood, the slow pace combined with the rhythmic nature could be kind of meditative.

When I was about halfway through, I somehow ended up with a couple spare hours. I didn’t have my kindle (what with usually actually having to work at work!) so I found an online version to keep reading. The MIT version is translated by Samuel Butler, and is written in prose. Initially it felt a bit like reading someone telling you about a story, rather than telling you the story itself. But in the end I found that it was more gripping, and the beauty and drama shone through more.

See below for the same quote in the two different versions:

Butler:
Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone they say come all their miseries yes but they themselves with their own reckless ways compound their pains beyond their proper share.

Pope:
Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.

The Odyssey is a long book, and to tell the truth there were times when I just didn’t care- I didn’t really care what happened to Ulysses, I was tired of everyone’s long speeches that could have been summarised in a few sentences, and was tired of the selfcentredness of many of the characters. But it was interesting to see the ancient Greek’s views of what the world was like a few hundred years before them-Gods interacting with humans, lavish feasts and immediate welcomes from noblemen and so on. And each translation was an experience in itself.

 

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.