Monday, September 22, 2014

Individual vs Community: A Character Comparison between Achilles and Aeneas

The Classical epic heroes Achilles and Aeneas serve as the respective paradigms of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures that produced them. The Romans borrowed extensively from Greeks—after all, the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid was built directly upon the foundation of the Greek poet Homer’s Iliad, the Aeneid being a continuation of the story of the Trojan War. But much as the Roman mythology of artistry was rooted in Greek tradition, the heroic ideals of their cultures were distinctly different from one another.

Achilles and Aeneas are not entirely dissimilar. Both are only part mortal, with the goddesses Thetis of the Silver Feet and Venus (the Greek Aphrodite) as their respective mothers and protectors. Both heroes have destinies to fulfill: Achilles must choose between a long life and a glorious legacy, and Aeneas is destined to become the founder of the city of Rome. But, because the Greeks and Romans had different sets of priorities—Greeks for honor and glory, Romans for family and duty—these priorities necessarily produced two different, but equally iconic cultural heroes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some: Agatha Christie's "Elephants Can Remember" and "The Moving Finger"

The hazard of finding an author you like whose work is prolific is that sometimes you find yourself disappointed. I’ll explain by giving a specific example: Agatha Christie. With 66 novels, 156 short stories, about two dozen plays (though some were based on aforesaid novels and short stories), and even a few nonfiction books, the odds are that even though I may love many of her novels, there are a few that will fall through the appreciation cracks.

It’s easy to understand how this happens. As a rule I’m not drawn to an author once I know they’ve written over a hundred works, figuring such a behemoth of work has probably resulted in a dilution of style, characterization, and plot. Quality is sacrifice for quantity. In fact if I see a book whose author’s name is larger than the title, I usually steer clear of it. A novel should rest on the merits of its title and plot alone, not on the name of the author. Marketing around an author’s name excludes new readers who may not know Agatha Christie is a master mystery novelist as opposed to some woman with two first names.*

The other reason this tends to happen is because an author gets “typecast” and stuck writing the same types of things, and when they start to get sick of it their prose suffers as a result.  Christie notoriously got sick of writing Hercule Poirot, just as Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of Sherlock Holmes. The creative writer in them may have longed to try something else, but these series were what put food on the table so they were compelled to continue long after their excitement of writing these stories was depleted.

Monday, September 1, 2014

“In the Land of Invented Languages”: A Review

During this long span of weeks where I’ve been reviewing nonfiction adult books, I’ve been talking about the reason these books were written. If a nonfiction book doesn’t exist solely to instruct, its purpose is also to persuade its audience to hold the same viewpoint as the author. Sometimes the author makes their opinion clear, other times it’s not so well defined. The trick when reading nonfiction is to root out that underlying thesis, because it’s only when you know the author’s perspective that you can make a conscious decision whether to agree, disagree, or maybe meet them halfway. 

Today’s reviewed book was one of those “halfway” situations with me. In the Land of Invented Languages is about, obviously, invented languages ranging from Esperanto to Klingon. Author Arika Okrent is a linguist who structures the book around her quest to pass a fluency test in Klingon, but goes on tangents outlining the history of constructed languages (as opposed to natural languages such as modern English that’s evolved from Middle and Old English, Gaelic, Latin, Ancient Greek, etc.). Her thesis is basically “Why do Invented Languages exist?  Are they viable?  And do they serve a purpose?”