Posts filed under ‘classic’


sleep book Wikipedia says – This book begins with a small bug, named Van Vleck, yawning. This yawn spreads (as yawns are terribly contagious) and then the book follows various creatures, including the Foona Lagoona Baboona, the Collaspable Frink, the Chippendale Mupp, The Oft, and the Krandles, throughout the lands who are sleeping, or preparing to sleep. Towards the end of the book the sleepers in the world are recorded by a special machine (“The Audio Telly O-Tally O-Count”). A Warning is printed on the inside cover of the book that “this book is to be read in bed” as it is intended to put children to sleep. The final line of the book is a simple, unmetered “Good night”.


December 23, 2013 at 1:03 am 1 comment

i thought graham greene‘s – the power and the glory  would provide an interesting comparison with our recent bookgroup on lacuna by barbara kingsolver, because it starts in mexico just before the period described in lacuna. As it turned out, the 70 year time difference, and the authors’ viewpoints, made them completely different propositions.

Bookgrouper’s enjoyed Greene’s writing. He relentlessly, vividly, painted a grey, drab depressed world – reminiscent of ‘the road’ i thought. He also relentlessly and vividly painted what he saw as the crisis of conscience, morals, belief, call it what you will, of his protagonist – the whiskey priest.

The priest believes himself to be an adulterer, a drunk, a proud, ambitious, falsely pious fraud, and a greedy coward. in short, a very bad priest. Nevertheless, some years after all the other priests have been, captured, shot or fled to neighbouring states, he remains, and when opportunity arises says mass, takes confession etc.

Greene makes a great deal of this contradiction. As a catholic convert himself, greene thinks this is a tremendously challenging scenario. to him, however bad the priest is, or whatever his motives are, he is doing good. he is saving souls by providing communion and confession. he is literally allowing people into heaven who cant get there without a priest’s intervention in the form of the catholic sacraments.

He then emphasises it even more with two plot twists that turn the screws on what he obviously sees as irresolvable moral choices.

Firstly he has the baddy of the story take a hostage from every village and start shooting them one by one till they hand over the priest. This sends our ‘bad priest’s’ guilty conscience into overdrive as he believes innocent peasants are dying for him – the very unworthy whiskey priest – but if he goes or gives himself up no peasants will get the sacraments?

Next, the priest finally decides to leave and crosses just over the border into safety, rests a few days in a peaceful village, and interestingly quickly falls back in to his old greedy, falsely pious, priestly ways. he is about to move on to a civilised city, when a known traitor finds him him and tells him a murderer is dying and wants absolution before he dies.

Greene thinks this is the ultimate in moral conflict. The priest goes with the traitor knowing he is being led into the arms of the police to be shot, but also believing that if there is a chance the murderer is dying and does want absolution he should give it.

If you suspend your disbelief, take on the mind set of the character and Greene, then you can see all this moral agonising is very well thought out and complex and interesting, and some bookgroupers got a lot from that.

Unfortunately for me, as an ex-catholic, i just felt it beautifully detailed the consequences you buy yourself, and the peasants who trust you, when you believe in magical nonsense like heaven, repentance, confession, and the transubstatiation of the body and blood of christ. Poor and innocent people die for nothing.

So the book may have been a classic in its time, but for me, the best part of a century later it felt well out of date. It felt like it painted a very colonial, rascist, somewhat cartoonish picture of mexico. This made the contrast with ‘the lacuna’ acute. Written in our time about mexico only a few years later, it felt thoroughly contemporary, vibrant and real. However, I have to be honest I have never been to Mexico so i am in no position to judge.

To emphasise that my view of the book may be a long way from universal, one bookgrouper who has spent time in mexico liked the book a lot, and felt the description of landscape etc was on the money.

November 10, 2012 at 5:30 am Leave a comment


When rosy fingered Dawn rose over the wine dark sea Dave and his strong grieved companions, each in their fine palace, appointed with good things, grunted and rolled over.

When Coffee, the beloved offspring of Helios and Rumour, had ministered to the companions they gathered together in counsel. The stewards brought bread, and placed many good things upon it. They brought strong wine from the far country where the men play with balls all day and are fearsome to look upon. Then when the noble strong companions had put away their desire for eating and drinking Donfrancisco addressed them in winged words.

Beloved companions, the resolute Leannarkos, the never failing Markopoulos, the astute Petermaous, we have a Journey that only heroes and gods would attempt. Our dear companion, the most loyal of all friends, the resolute and enduring Trishanikis, whose perseverence rivals even that of immortal Sisyphus has summoned us to her strange country where dwell not eaters of bread, men as we know them, but eaters of maccaroons. We must cross the wide ocean where the fishes swarm, and Posiedon earth shaker rules. We must enter upon the roads where Eternal Traffic, despiser of men and most fickle of gods, the trickster daughter of Fate and Luck, can entrap men for many lifetimes.

And so he addressed them in winged words and they spoke back and forth among them until brave Karlaniphous spoke. Noble Donfrancisco, best of men, and all my beloved companions, this is the plan that seems best to me. We must summon the stewards from our well appointed palaces and see that all things are made ready, all provisions are stowed in the well benched black ships, then must make libations and hecatombs to the great god Google, only he can show the best way to make our journey to avoid the briny arms of Poseidon earth shaker and ruler of fishes, to defeat wily Traffic and all her allies.

And so it goes on – its a very long book and its at least 3000 years old and wasn’t written down for about 500 years after it was composed – so you have to cut it a bit of slack.

All the repetition and the unnecessary length and detail are believed to be there because it was an oral tradition. It was entertainment through the long nights so in some ways, back then, the longer the story the better. At least that is what the intro to my translation said.

There are lots of other interesting things to observe about it including the translation issue, the colour issue, the hospitality issue, the gods issue and the hero figure.

However, the first third is quite dull. The parody above is based on that section. It goes on and on like that. The book really only gets going in the middle when odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventure. While this part is still a bit annoying because odysseus himself seems to be quite obnoxious, it does have a lot of action and it does introduce a lot of greek gods. This is quite useful because we have grown up with these gods but most of us dont know them in detail.

So i would say that section is worth reading, but skip the rest – unless you have a need to feel you have read what is probably the foundational piece of literature for our western culture.

In which case, you may be interested in this  study guide and/or these observations.

The translation issue

A big question when approaching homer is which translation to read. This guide to the main ones is the best decision aid i have found. if you want to totally confuse yourself check out the full list of every english translation ever. one of the issues is that it was apparently recited in iambic pentameter (the same rhythmic structure often used by shakespeare) in the ancient greek, so is it more authentic to read a translation that is in verse or is it better to read prose which is more likely to get the translation closer because it doesnt have to worry about rhythm and loud and soft syllables etc.

The colour issue

While reading it I was listened to this radiolab podcast which had a segment about why the colour blue is never used by homer anywhere in his books. The segment said
What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howardintroduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.
i thought it was fascinating. more on the issue here just to prove the strange folk at radiolab are not the only ones to notice this. however the translation I read does use blue. the sea is ‘wine-blue’ throughout not ‘wine-dark’ – bit of ad-libbing by the translator?

The hospitality issue

Most of odysseus’ adventures are based around the idea of people being to hospitable to guests or not hospitable enough, or guests taking advantage of their hosts. For example the central issue is that odysseus is away for 10 years and is annoyed that the ‘suitors’ abused he hospitality of his house all that time. He kills them all for this. The guest/host relationship is an odd thing to be the central theme in an adventure story to people of our time. The intro to my translation claims this is because homer was a wandering poet and effectively lived off hospitality, so it was in his self interest to encourage hosts to be generous.

The gods issue

It is very obvious from the odyssey that the ancient greeks very sensibly just made every inexplicable natural phenomena into a god. Then they made all these gods very fickle and interactive so they could make lots of stories of how various gods related to each other to explain various events. Its a great system if you have no science and its much the same approach that nearly all pre-scientific cultures adopted allround the world. The book puts you inside the head of people like that, of religious people in modern times also perhaps, so that is interesting.

The hero figure

Odysseus is literally the archetypal hero for our culture. What is interesting about that is that he has lots of characteristics we still regrd as heroic – physically big, capable and beautiful. He also seems to have quite a few we might not think of highly – reckless, vengeful, selfish, impetuous, self indulgent. Its quite interesting to compare him to arny schwarznegger, bruce willis, russell crowe or tom cruise type heroes.

July 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment


Bookgroupers returned to the classics for the holiday season.

No-one would dispute that Dickens is a classic author, just look at the details about dickens here, but I was very surprised by the value that I got from what I had envisaged as a classic fairy tale for kids.

Believing it to be a kids fairy tale i was not surprised to find the characters to be overblown stereotypical representations of various character types. But i was very surprised to find such a strong recognition of my own and other peoples behaviours in these characters, and i was even more surprised to find myself very moved by the fate of these charicatures and to be forced into some reflection of mine own while reading of scrooge doing his repenting and changing.

however, the group more broadly was not so moved though all agreed it was a good and worthwhile read. the bookgroupers, being such warm generous and friendly types, perhaps had less to learn from the ghosts of christmas past, present and future than i did.

interestingly no-one had read the original before – not recently anyway. equally interestingly i dont think any of us read a second dickens. a few, like me, started but didnt finish. this may be more a comment on the length of most of dicken’s other novels rather than their quality or relevance. although in my case (i tried to read hard times) the stereotypical nature of the central character, which in a short supernatural moral tale like a christmas carol was a strength, became a serious flaw in a lengthy novel. it seemed so clear where the novel was going, that is the stereotypical character would get his comeuppence a la scrooge, that i couldnt be bothered reading hundreds of pages to get there.

most significantly, the group discussion revolved more around the historical and cultural impact of the book rather than the book itself. this was probably because everyone knows the story very well so there isnt that much to discuss, whereas the idea that dickens, through this book, created christmas as we now know it was not well known to us.

this really is an interesting point of cultural history that many of us were not aware of prior to reading the book and some material on it. It seems to be a clear example of the power of ideas and literature.

However i think its worth noting that the effect of dicken’s idea, that is as one bookgrouper put it, a secular consumerist christmas rather than a church based christmas is helpful to commerce and capital. so we can put dickens and his version of christmas up there on a shelf with a collection of other new ideas in history such as the work ethic, the separation of church and state, and individualism. all these are ideas that arose in culture, through philosophy or religion, and seemingly propagated unassisted through western countries. In each case however they supported rather than undermined commerce and capital. other ideas seemingly at odds with commerce and capital took longer to catch on, for example freedom for slaves, feminism and ecological thinking.

January 8, 2009 at 10:02 am Leave a comment


This episode of bookgroup had a science fiction theme and raised a number of interesting ideas.

Strangely the two books we chose for the theme, although both set in the future, were not at all representative of the genre.

so unfortunately the group cant say it delved into the genre only that we discussed some interesting books set in the future.

nevertheless bookgroupers were generally very enthusiastic about the writing in both books, although two criticisms surfaced
– the margaret atwood provoked a reprise of previous disagreements about style. some of us found it dry and oddly unemotional whilst still being visually vivid. This turned out to be the same difference in preference between bookgroup members we had unerthed during the rohinton mistry bookgroup
-solaris often descended into lengthy paragraphs that sounded technical and scientific and hard to follow, but were in fact nonsense. its a fiction book and the technical details are not true, nevertheless the book dwelt on them for long periods which made some bookgroupers feel like they should have understood them. in fact as a reader you can just skip them. i felt this was a weakness in the book – it was tedious, pointless and unnecessary.

these weaknesses were outweighed by the positives. readers valued the outlandishness of the imagination in both books. they both portrayed worlds very different from our own but made the worlds, and the behaviour of the characters in them, believable.

a handmaids tale is a feminist imagining of a future polito-religious state run by ex tele-evangelists and their cronies. a world which did not seem so unlikely during the late 80s and 90s as the american fundamentalist right rose and rose culminating in george w.

if i had read it in 1999 or 2000 i think i would have been terrified and seen it as potentially prophetic. reading it in 2008 i felt more like it was a horror that has thankfully been avoided and therefore quaint or amusing rather than terrifying. but i am an optimist and i have never lived under the taliban or in saudi arabia. perhaps women in those places may feel its more of a documentary than science fiction.

solaris is really a philosophical meditation on what it means to be. it paints a picture of two types of beings that question our ideas of what it is to exist, as a human.

firstly the planet solaris is described as a vast conscious ocean capable of generating any structure it chooses, capable of reading human minds, but apparently because it is a unity not a population of individuals not capable of with humans, doing anything that humans recognise as useful in anyway.

At one point the book alludes to the idea of a trapped, lonely god, or a finite god – capable of anything, except changing its own position in the universe, and condemned to live with itself forever alone. the suggestion being that while the planet solaris is like this, so are humans to some extent – each living in our own private hell/heaven.

secondly, the planet created perfect facsimilies of loved ones from the crews minds. suddenly crew members wake up to find their closest dead loved one (lover/child/brother) with them. whilst these ‘visitors’ are apparently fully alive and fully human, they have only those memories of themselves that the crew member has, because they have been created from the crew members mind. the crew debated the moral status/rights of these beings.

i thought this was a great idea and really interesting, and couldn’t help wondering what i would choose to do if i woke up to find visitor like that in my room. there alive, i have a second chance – can i get it right this time?

April 30, 2008 at 11:33 am Leave a comment


moby dick one of the best known classics around, as indicated by the lengthy wikipedia entry which has a lot of information on the book

interestingly though most bookgroupers, as well read as they are, had not read it

we met at suitably maritime place and the weather was suitably wet and grim to match the book. we didnt see any whales or savages or harpooneers. although we did pass a funeral and the mourners all looked pretty rough, tattoos and missing teeth etc, so maybe melville might classify them that way, or maybe not maybe they would be considered gentleman by his 19th century standards

i felt bookgroup was generally quite positive about moby dick, although a couple of us were not. perhaps the most interesting thing was that everyone appeared to have a different reason for being positive:
– some loved the detail about the whales themselves;
– some the description of the 19th century dependence on the whale – the idea that theirs was a whale economy in the way ours is an oil economy;
– others loved the culture studies aspect, for example the chapter on the meaning of white in western culture;
– others loved the psycological aspect, how it was a study of obsession and monomania, and how it can be read allegorically – this is the tragedy that can happen when leaders characterise something as the embodiment of evil and embark on a grand obsession to exterminate it;
– others liked the historical value. they saw it as a time capsule from a society with at least one foot still in a medieval christian european world but moving, or being pushed, into the new modern post christian global world. perhaps partly because of global businesses like whaling that forced a much greater level of contact with other cultures/religions;
– others loved the language and the humour; and
– finally any book that gives you an excuse to talk like a pirate has got to good, avast ye salty dogs, and swab the decks ye scurvy ridden land lubbers etc etc.

it seems likely that this ability for different people to get different things from the book might explain its appeal and its enduring place in western culture.

i thought a couple of comments by bookgroupers helped explain this ‘something for everyone’ appeal, but also explain why some of us found it too annoying to finish.
– Apparently melville was writing three different books but in the end just left them all together in one book. i think this explains the structure of the book which is literally hundreds of short chapters, often the chapters appear to be unrelated and written in different ‘voices’.
– There were no editors back in the 1850s when the book was published. i think this explains the outrageosly long sentences. At one point he writes a sentence that is over a page long. i found this extremely annoying. the lack of an editor might also explain why melville seems unclear about what he is trying to do – which of those three books is he writing – and unable even to maintain the same ‘voice’ throughout, or at least tell you when he is changing ‘voice’. For example, he clearly starts the book in the voice of ishmael, the narrator, but later in the book, ishmael disappears to be replaced by an omniscient 3rd party observer/narrator who is presumably melville himself, but then ishmael briefly reappears from time to time

the result is a book like the second draw in your kitchen cupboards. its got lots of good stuff, but its all jumbled up with other stuff you dont want and probably dont need, so the useless stuff makes it hard to find the stuff you want

so i recommend the advice of one bookgrouper on how to read moby dick. she advises that whenever you stop enjoying it just skip a few pages to the next chapter. odds are melville will be talking about a different issue and the book might become fun again.

March 3, 2008 at 10:32 am Leave a comment


two books this post. why? because famous author kurt vonnegut recently died and his best known work, slaughterhouse5, contained a time travelling protagonist and a narrative that jumped back and forth in time. these traits are also found in a very recent best seller – the time travellers wife by audrey neffenegger.

so bookgroupers thought lets compare two similarly themed and successful books, written 40 years apart.

however, beyond the time travel similarities between the books were rare.

slaughterhouse5 had an anti-hero. slaughterhouse5 had an axe to grind. a loud and angry axe, sharpenned on pages of pointless tragedy, and it yelled, in the spirit of the 60s, war – what is it good for?

less fashionably, for the time, it also yelled america what is it good for? and i loved it for that.

vonnegut has short sentences, bereft of ornament. like hemingway the big man of the previous generation of american literature, vonneguts sentences are so sparse they force you to fill the empty spaces with your own images. unlike hemingway however, vonnegut prose is also bereft of mucho bravado and pretense. more radically, vonneguts lead character in the book, billy pilgrim, is the antithesis of hemingway’s wealthy charismatic wasters and bull fighters. he refuses to fight, he’s unattractive, even mad, and yet vonnegut chooses him to be the lead character.

in contrast, ‘the time traveller’s wife’ has a heroine and no axe to grind. instead it has a love story and attractive lead characters, even, in a curious way, happy endings.

‘the wife’ was also different from vonnegut because it had rich, velvety prose that you could smell, and surrender to. ‘the wife’ described everything in 3d technicolor, whereas vonnegut prose is sparse black and white, giving you just enough details so that you can make up the rest of the image.

although ‘the wife’ was not preachy, neither was it smaltzy. it may be about love and pretty people but its also about humanity, nasty as we are. while it could be criticised as not having an agenda, a la vonnegut, i felt the pictures of people, and their society, that it presented were no less powerful for not having headlines above them telling us what the author meant

in the end, for me, i found ‘the wife’ to be more enjoyable but i was amazed at the bravery of vonnegut. to talk about america in the terms he did, 40 years ago at the height of the vietnam war, is a great achievement.

vonnegut died recently, and there is a fascinating interview with famous author john irving, who was a friend of vonnegut. if you listen you’ll discover vonnegut was a v.interesting, kind of weird and funny, guy. he was obviously v.happy to be different which perhaps explains how he was able to take, what must have been a very unpopular stance in 60s america

September 25, 2007 at 12:08 pm Leave a comment

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