Back to the Classics 2017

I am reblogging Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics 2017 Challenge.  This is my way of announcing (for posterity) that I hereby join this challenge.  Bring. It. On.
Are you in?

It’s back! Once again, I’m hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I hope to encourage bloggers to discover and enjoy classic books they might not have tried, or just never got around to reading. And at the end, one lucky winner will receive a $30 (US) prize from Amazon.com or The Book Depository!

Here’s how it works:

The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read 12 books to participate in this s

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing

And here are the categories for the 2016 {I think she means 2017} Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1967. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later, such as posthumous publications.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. (You can also read books in translation for any of the other categories).

5.  A classic published before 1800. Plays and epic poems are acceptable in this category also.

6.  An romance classic. I’m pretty flexible here about the definition of romance. It can have a happy ending or a sad ending, as long as there is a strong romantic element to the plot.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. For a good definition of what makes a book Gothic, and an excellent list of possible reads, please see this list on Goodreads.

8.  A classic with a number in the title. Examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Three Men in a Boat, The Nine Tailors, Henry V, Fahrenheit 451, etc.

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  It an actual animal or a metaphor, or just the name. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Metamorphosis, White Fang, etc.

10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visit. It can be real or imaginary: The Wizard of Oz, Down and Out in Paris and London, Death on the Nile, etc.

11. An award-winning classic. It could be the Newbery award, the Prix Goncourt, the Pulitzer Prize, the James Tait Award, etc. Any award, just mention in your blog post what award your choice received.

12. A Russian Classic. 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so read a classic by any Russian author.

And now, the rest of the rules:

  • All books must be read in 2017. Books started before January 1, 2017 do not qualify. All reviews must be linked to this challenge by December 31, 2017. I’ll post links each category the first week of January which will be featured on a sidebar on this blog for the entire year.
  • You must also post a wrap-up review and link it to the challenge no later than December 31, 2017. Please include links within your final wrap-up to that I can easily confirm all your categories. Also, it is OK to rearrange books to fit different categories in your wrap-up post — for example, last year I originally planned to use Journey to the Center of the the Earth in the Fantasy/SciFi/Dystopian category, but then I decided to count it as an Adventure Classic. Most books count count toward several categories, so it’s fine if you change them, as long as they are identified in your wrap-up post.
  • All books must have been written at least 50 years ago; therefore, books must have been written by 1967 to qualify for this challenge. The ONLY exceptions are books published posthumously.
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible! You may also count books that you read for other challenges.
  • Books may NOT cross over within this challenge. You must read a different book for EACH category, or it doesn’t count.
  • Children’s classics are acceptable, but please, no more than 3 total for the challenge.
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link to reviews on Goodreads or any other publicly accessible online format. For example, if you have a Goodreads account, you could create a dedicated list to the challenge, and link to that with a tentative list (the list can change throughout the challenge).
  • The deadline to sign up for the challenge is March 1, 2017. After that, I will close the link and you’ll have to wait until the next year! Please include a link to your original sign-up post, not your blog URL. Also, make sure you add your link to the Linky below, NOT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION. If I don’t see your name in the original Linky, YOU WILL BE INELIGIBLE. If you’ve made a mistake with your link, just add a second one.
  • You do NOT have to list all the books you’re going to read for the challenge in your sign-up post, but it’s more fun if you do! Of course, you can change your list any time. Books may also be read in any order.
  • The winner will be announced on this blog the first week of January, 2018. All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, depending on the number of categories completed. One winner will be selected at random for all qualifying entries. The winner will receive a gift certificate in the amount of $30 (US currency) from either Amazon.com OR $30 worth of books from The Book Depository. The winner MUST live in a country that will receive shipments from one or the other. For a list of countries that receive shipments from The Book Depository, click here.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up at the linky below! I’ll be posting my list of possible reads for 2017 in the next couple of days. Happy reading!

Dante’s Man Crush on Virgil

Dante and Virgil
Dante and Virgil

In the past few weeks, I wrote a few blog posts on Dante’s Inferno, the great medieval Italian depiction of hell.  As it happened, I was in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the other day, and I stumbled upon this wonderful sculpture of Dante and Virgil.  I had not been previously aware of this 1862 sculpture by Baron Henri de Triqueti.  (For more information on this work, click here.).

I was, though, aware of the serious “man-crush” Dante Alighieri had on Publius Vergilius Maro, more commonly known as Virgil.  Virgil was a Roman poet who lived from 70 – 19 B.C., while Dante was a Florentine who lived from 1265-1321 A.D,  Obviously, then, they never met.  This sculpture is a product of Triqueti’s imagination.

Virgil was most famous for epic poem The Aeneid, which was in many ways a rewriting of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad,  but from the point of view of the Trojans who eventually became the Romans who, at the time of Aeneid’s writing, were a powerful empire controlling a good chunk of the world.

Dante thought Virgil was awesome, the bees knees, the greatest thing since sliced bread, the top of the charts, quite simply the best.  Dante thought Virgil was so cool, in fact, that he put him in his poem.  Virgil in The Inferno symbolizes the epitome of human reason, the best that humans are capable of without the light of God.  (Virgil was a pagan.)  Unfortunately, Virgil lives in hell because he was pre-Christian.   However, he lives in the best section of it, along with the other virtuous pagans.  Nothing really bad happens to the virtuous pagans.  They are simply without hope of heaven.

Having quite a bit of spare time on his hands, Virgil agrees to guide Dante through hell.  He explains who is who, what is what, and why they sinners are punished the way they are.  Without Virgil, Dante would not have been able to make it through hell and come out on the other end.  Without Virgil as his poetic guide, he would not have been able to write the masterpiece of The Divine Comedy, either.

What about you?  If you were writing an epic poem in which you were featured as the hero or heroine, who would you choose as your guide?  Do you have a man-crush or woman-crush on an author, dead or alive?

 

Tribute to Henry David Thoreau

Today I visited Concord and the nearby Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau stayed alone for two years. These photos, which I took today, are my tribute to him and his writings.  The captions are all quotations by Thoreau, taken from Walden.

Have you read Thoreau?  What do you think of him?

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for  society.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
"If  the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself."
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.”
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

The Dante’s Inferno Weight-Loss Plan

In Dante Alighieri’s medieval poem The Inferno, the third circle of hell is reserved for the gluttons.   Everything in this circle is like a huge garbage dump.  The dead gluttons lie in a “putrid slush” while being deluged with “huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow.”  This landscape sounds almost as bad as Minnesota in March.

(For more information on The Inferno, see my previous post here.)

Illustration of Canto 6 by Stradanus
Illustration of Canto 6 by Stradanus

But that’s not all!  Added to this frozen rain of hell is the punishment inflicted by the triple-headed dog Cerberus, who “howls through his triple throats like a mad dog / over the spirits sunk in that foul paste. / His eyes are red, his beard is greased with phlegm / his belly is swollen, and his hands are claws/ to rip the wretches and flay and mangle them”  (Canto VI, Circle 3, lines 14 – 18).  These gluttonous souls are buried like garbage, and the mad dog Cerberus devours them like so much leftover meat.

Dante believed the gluttons deserved such punishment because when they were alive, they could think of nothing better to do with their God-given gifts than to wallow in food and drink.  They thus deserve to spend eternity “rotting like a swollen log.”

In the past, whenever I read this description of the gluttons in hell, my first reaction was to think, “oh, crap.  I really need to give up those Snickers bars before I end up here.”  This time, though, reading about the Third Circle gave me a business idea.  I am going to create and promote the Dante’s Inferno Weight Loss Plan.  First, I will open up a chain of weight-loss centers across the nation.    My plan will work a bit like Weight Watchers.  Clients will agree to follow a reduced-calorie diet, and will meet once a week for a weigh-in.   If they lose weight, all is well.

However, if they do not lose weight, they will then be sent immediately (through a trap door) to  Dante’s Third Circle of hell, where they will remain for a week.  After being slobbered over and gnawed at for a week by Cerberus, they will probably become so nauseated and disgusted that they will not be able to eat much. They will come back after their “adventure” a few pounds lighter, but more important they will be motivated to stay on their diets forever, in order to avoid such punishment again.

With The Inferno plan, my clients will not only lose pounds, but they will lose the weight of their sins as well and can move on directly to Purgatory.

What do you think of my plan?  It’s brilliant, right?  All I need to make it work is a partner who is willing to invest a few billion dolllars to help build a replica of The Inferno.   (We could probably have it double as a theme park as well, now that I think of it.)

Are you in?

————

Want to know which circle of hell you belong in?  Click here to find out.

http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-test.mv

In Praise of Fallen Women

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette
Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

If not for Fallen Women (aka strumpets, hussies, jezebels, floozies, trollops, and vixens), there would be no novels.  Female characters who have sex outside of marriage (often just once) and who then suffer grievously have excited the imaginations of our classic novelists more than any other subject.

A few examples off the top of my head include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  These novels were all written in the 19th century.

As the 20th progressed, fallen women no longer had to die.  Complete ostracism from polite society was deemed sufficient, as we see with Caddy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence.   (In the case of Ellen Olenska, she was Fallen because of her divorce rather than sexual indiscretions.)

It all started with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel.  Clarissa was one of the first novels written in English, and one of the longest.  (I read the abridged version, which was around 800 pages or so.)  The plot revolves around the Lovelace, a dyed in the wool Cad, who lusts after Clarissa.  He spends several hundred pages trying to seduce Clarissa, who succeeds in resisting his advances.  Ever more desperate, he finally drugs her and rapes her.  Clarissa, who is now a Fallen Woman, spends several hundred more pages dying of anguish.

Seeing how successful Richardon’s novel was, many other 18th century writers in both England and the United States followed suit.  One of the most successful American novels of the 18th century was The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster.  Published anonymously in 1797, The Coquette was a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Elizabeth Whitman.

Coquette

Elizabeth Whitman was the daughter of a highly respected family with illustrious backgrounds.  She was known and respected for her wit, her intelligence and her charm.  Yet she died in a tavern, seduced and abandoned.  How could such a thing happen?  Foster tries to explain Eliza’s fall in her novel.

In The Coquette, Eliza was proposed to by an upstanding young clergyman.  She was not especially attracted to him, but she realized he was a good catch.  She vacillated about her answer.  In the meantime, she was pursued by a Bad Man who just wanted to seduce her for the fun of it.  Bad Man had no intention of marrying her, because he needed to marry for money.  Eliza knows at heart that she would not be a good fit as a clergyman’s wife because of her gay personality and love of fun.  She also knows that Bad Man has a bad reputation, but is attracted to him anyway.

As you might expect, things do not end well for Eliza, who ends up seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead, and eaten by cats.  (The eaten by cats part was not technically mentioned in the book.)

The story of the real-life Elizabeth Whitman was fodder for countless finger-wagging sermons.    As one contemporary newspaper account intoned, Whitman “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved because she aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife; and having coquetted till past her prime, fell into criminal indulgences.”

Hannah Webster Foster’s novel paints a more nuanced picture.  As a reader, I was sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to marry someone she was attracted to, not just someone who was “good on paper.”  After all, her clergyman suitor was clearly interested in Eliza primarily because he found  her “hot.” I was also sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to enjoy her single state for a while and “date” more than one man.  (In the context of late 18th century America, “date” meant “talk to at balls or other public events.”).

Foster portrays Eliza as making some really dumb decisions.  But she also highlights how limited the choices were for young women of the time.  She also emphasized how narrow the path was for women who did not want to lose their reputations.

Alas, like so many other literary heroines afterwards, Eliza fell off her pedestal and into the gutter—swiftly and irrevocably.   She, like all the others, became fodder not just for cats but for all the voracious sermonizers who delighted in her ruin.

(This post is a continuation of my series on early American writers, in honor of Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Boston.)

What Fresh Hell Is This? Dante’s “Inferno:

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Dante
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Dante

 

Medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote probably the most famous depiction of hell of all times.  In his Inferno, he wrote very detailed descriptions of the nine levels of hell.  For him, sins are not all created equal.  The first circle of hell is reserved for those who were not bad in life, just unbaptized.  The second circle is for those who succumb to lust.  The third is for gluttony, and so forth.  Each sin has its own punishment designed specifically for it.  For example, the lustful are forced to be blown about in a violent storm because they succumbed to the violent storm of lust  in real life.

Which level do you belong in?
Which level do you belong in?

At the center of hell lies Satan.  Although we tend to think of hell as a fiery place, Dante’s Satan is encased in ice, denoting his soul that is frozen to the love of God.

William Bougureau, painting of Dante's Inferno
William Bougureau, painting of Dante’s Inferno

Dante lived in the 14th century, so his conception of various sins was colored by the times in which he lived.  I think we need to update his map of hell for the present times.

I need your help for this.  If you were to create a map of hell as you see it, what/who would you put in the various levels?

For example, I teach at the college level.  If I were to make a map of academic sins, I might include the following:

–1st circle:  students who continually ask questions like, “When is this paper due?” or “What are we doing tomorrow” when all of this information is found on my carefully planned and copiously distributed syllabus.

–2nd circle:  students who missed class and ask the next day, “Did I miss anything in class yesterday?”

–3rd circle:  students who spend the entire class period looking down at their crotches, texting on their phones.

–8th circle:  Plagiarizers.

–9th circle:  Administrators who think people do not need to study literature.

(Obviously, this is a work in progress.)

Tell me about your levels of hell!

“Love Hurts, Love Scars, Love Wounds and Mars”

Romantic love beckons to young girls, luring them in with promises of beautiful sunsets, rhapsodic violin melodies, and long romantic dinners.  Love, they believe, will solve all their problems, heal all their wounds, and make their thighs look thinner.

For romantic girls such as these, the goddess of love resembles a fairy godmother, Disney style.  American Girl Love Goddess is warm and benevolent, full of goodwill towards us mere humans.  She just wants to see everyone happily coupled with their soul mates.  She WILL eventually make all of us happy in love.

 The Fairy Godmother from Disney's "Cinderella"

The Fairy Godmother from Disney’s “Cinderella”

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew better.  The goddess of love they worshipped (called Aphrodite by the Greek and Venus by the Romans) was no warm and cuddly grandmother type.  She was a FORCE to be reckoned with.  She was someone to respect, someone to fear.

Roman copy of Greek statue of Aphrodite  by Callimachus
Roman copy of Greek statue of Aphrodite by Callimachus

 “Watch out, or I will smite you!”

 Hippolytus and Phaedra learned this the hard way.  Their stories, passed down by myth, were portrayed in Euripides’s tragedy Hippolytus, first performed in 428 B.C. in Athens.  Hippolytus was an upright young man, full of virtue.  He was so virtuous, in fact, that he did not pay the proper respect to Aphrodite.  He preferred to remain a virgin and devote most of his reverence to Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt.  People warned Hippolytus that he was asking for trouble by ignoring Aphrodite and the force of eros she represented.  Hippolytus ignored their wise counsel.

He should have paid more heed.  Aphrodite did not take kindly to being ignored, and she decided to teach Hippolytus a lesson.  Unfortunately, Aphrodite took out her desire for vengeance on an innocent bystander: Phaedra.   Phaedra was married to Hippolytus’s father, Theseus.  She was living happily with Theseus until Aphrodite decided to smite her with overwhelming passion for her stepson.  Obviously, this put Phaedra in an untenable position.

Phaedra was in agony.  She could not bear to live without the object of her desire, and yet she could never reveal her secret to anyone.  So she decided to waste away silently.  She stayed locked in her room, refusing to see anyone or eat anything.  Struck as she was with the force of eros, she wanted to die.

Alexandre Cabanel, Phaedra and her nurse
Alexandre Cabanel, Phaedra and her nurse

The chorus of Hippolytus understood her pain, her predicament.  They chanted the following lines:

Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear,
Men’s eyes with hunger; thou swift Foe that pliest
Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear;
Come not to me with Evil haunting near,
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear
Wing’s music as thou fliest!
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire,
Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear,
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire,
Erôs, Child of the Highest!

I won’t reveal what happened next, in case you wish to read the tragedy yourselves.  (It’s well worth a read and does not take a long time.)  Since it is considered a tragedy, however, you probably figured out that the story does not turn out well for either Phaedra or Hippolytus.  Readers and viewers of Euripides’s Hippolytus understand that Eros is not a warm and benevolent gift.  Rather it is an overwhelming, ruthless force that not only has a strong potential for serious damage, but can also kill.

Dido of Virgil’s The Aeneid (19 B.C.) shares a similar fate with Phaedra.  Dido, like Phaedra, is the victim of the scheming love goddess.  (Since Virgil was Roman, the goddess of love is now called Venus, but she is just as destructive as Aphrodite. )

When we first meet Dido, she is a strong, single, successful woman.  She is the founder and ruler of Carthage, an up-and-coming city that has the potential to ruin Rome (in the future).  Because Dido and her city are so successful, however, they pose a threat to Rome.  Therefore they must be destroyed.  Venus, who happens to be the mother of Aeneas (our hero), smites Dido with overpowering erotic love for her son.  Once Dido is struck with Venus’s arrow, she is doomed:

The queen, for her part, all that evening ached
With longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound
Or inward fire eating her away.
The manhood of the man, his pride of birth,
Came home to her tie and again; his looks,
His words remained with her to haunt her mind,
And desire for him gave her no rest.

Poor Dido!  This love for Aeneas is not a gift, but a “wound,” and will be the cause of her undoing.  Yes, she and Aeneas do have a mutually passionate relationship for a few months.  But soon, Aeneas is called away by the gods. Yes, they actually visit him and tell him it’s time to leave Carthage to go found Rome. He feels bad, but he tells Dido he needs to move on.

Dido is devastated.  For her, life is no longer worth living.  She can never go back to her content days as Queen of Carthage.  Instead, she builds a funeral pyre, climbs upon it, and stabs herself to death.

Henry Fuseli, Dido
Henry Fuseli, Dido

 

Keep in mind, all this ruin was caused by Venus, who deliberately started the flames of passion in Dido, knowing full well what the results would be.  In other words, Venus is one cold bitch.

What should you take away from these ancient myths?  The ancients knew something about the power of eros.  They would tell you this:

Be careful.  Pay Aphrodite/Venus the respect she is due.  And then get out of her way before she smites you.

The rock band Nazareth knew this, too, as their hit song from 1976 demonstrates:

“Love Hurts”

Love hurts, love scars, love wounds
And mars, any heart
Not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
Love hurts……ooh, ooh love hurts