The Iliad (John Dolan) & The Odyssey (Emily Wilson)
Books assigned in school, by virtue of being homework, lose the luster with which they debuted. It’s easy to forget that Darkness at Noon was inspired a backlash by Western communists, that To Kill a Mockingbird was consumed enthusiastically by the reading public but panned by contemporary writers, that Ulysses was censored and contested. Everything suffers a little when you have to articulate it in an essay.
The Greek epics suffer most of all. These survive to the present day because of the diligent nerds of the past. But they survived for hundreds of years before they were first written down because of the oral tradition of Mediterranean civilization. It’s a tradition that endures today in the form of post-work drinks, raucous brunches, and the subdued conversation of adults while kids chase each other around the yard. But you wouldn’t think, reading your traditional translations, that The Iliad or The Odyssey are meant to be told in that context.
John Dolan, better known as military history blogger “The War Nerd”, took on The Iliad with the goal of making it more vibrant to a modern audience. We’re used to reading it as a sort of stultified fantasy story: Tolkien minus the fun stuff. Dolan, known for tackling dry military theory with an irreverent bent, upends that. His Iliad is the story of soldiers on the front lines of a doomed war, subject to regular and unpredictable interference by the gods. He abandons the poetic meter and produces something that wouldn’t look amiss in Tim O’Brien or Cormac McCarthy:
The captive girl is waiting to hear if she’s going back home. She watches her old father, the priest, limp down the beach toward her master’s tent.
Her father’s carrying a bag and a wreath. The wreath is a flag of truce from his god. She’s trying not to think about it. She needs to forget her old life. Back then she was from a good family; she’d never even been out of the family compound without a slave to guard her. Until the day the Greeks ran up from the sea.
Emily Wilson, a professor of the classics at the University of Pennsylvania, has a more academic bent in approaching The Odyssey. The hardcover begins with 100 pages of prefatory material, translator’s notes, and maps. But it’s still a refreshed version of that ancient heroic journey. After all the aforementioned gloss, Wilson launches into an invocation that makes the story modern while still preserving an iambic pentameter:
Tell be about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
And where he went, and who he met, the pain
He suffered in the storms at sea, and how
He worked to save his life and bring his men
Back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
Kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
Tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning
Pick up one or both and revisit the tentpoles of Western literature.—John Perich
The Wake (Paul Kingsnorth)
Having recommended two books that are being championed as easier reads, I have to throw in a deliberately hard one as well. The setting is ancient, foreign, and presented with next to no exposition: rural England, 1066, immediately prior to the Norman Conquest. The protagonist, Buccmaster of Holland, is a snarling paranoid chauvinist who thinks he’s receiving visions from English heroes of legend. He’s our only narrator, so the entire world is filtered through his judgmental, unreliable eyes. And the entire thing is written in a modernized approximation of Olde English, making every sentence three times as hard to read. (Subvocalizing some words with a thick Northern accent, like “treow” or “anglisc” or “esol”, will help; some of them, like “scramasax” or “ingenga”, you’ll need to consult the glossary for.)
Given all these obstacles, I would not recommend this book for everybody. But it’s the story of a man whose culture is destroyed, who refuses to adapt, and who lashes out at everyone who tries to help him. In that light, it’s one of the most relevant books you can read today. —John Perich
All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren)
There is only one person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, but I’d never heard of Robert Penn Warren until last month (and I was a Humanities major so I’m supposed to know these things). His greatest work, All the King’s Men, is mainly remembered for the 1949 film adaptation that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. But picking the book up on a whim, I was blown away by two things. First, the writing is just beautiful – doesn’t surprise me the author was mainly known as a poet. I could quote this thing all day, but here’s something that might be relevant to the holiday season:
When you got born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can’t get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can.
[Note: go ahead and Google “hame.” I certainly did.] But secondly, there’s the subject matter: the rise of an American demagogue whose ability to stoke populist anger is exceeded only by his utter cynicism and naked ambition. It’s chillingly relevant. —Matt Belinkie
The United States of Absurdity (Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds)
If you haven’t discovered The Dollop podcast, you’re in for a treat. Comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds have recorded over 300 episodes of fascinating and hilarious stories from American history, from a Civil War boat filled with prostitutes to the short-lived plan to breed hippos in the swamps of Louisiana. Now they’ve taken some of the best stories and written them up in a book. The history is 100% true and bizarre, and the writing is funny enough so you can’t read this one in bad next to someone who is sleeping. Trust me, I’ve tried. If you guys also have a dog-eared copy of America: The Book sitting on a shelf from 2004, this will make a beautiful companion piece. —Matt Belinkie
Comic Books and Graphic Novels without Superheroes
I was never a big fan of the superhero genre, so I used to think I didn’t like comics as a medium. I hadn’t really considered the possibility that there were comics that felt more like short films and indie movies than blockbusters until I went to a comic book store that had a huge selection of the weirder, more artsy stuff. I found so many different visual styles and types of stories, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been aware of them yet. So here’s a sampling of non-superhero comic books and graphic novels, for anyone who would like to explore the medium.
The slice-of-life stories:
- Jessica Abel’s Mirror, Window: An Artbabe Collection
- Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, Killing and Dying, Scenes from an Impending Marriage, and Summer Blonde
The classics of the medium:
- Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Colleen Doran’s The Sandman Omnibus Vol. 1
- David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp
The very serious and politically relevant:
- Jason Lutes’s Berlin: City of Stones (Book One)
The pop culture-inspired fantasy:
- Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act
The weird ones that push the medium’s boundaries:
And finally, a book on how to create your own comics and cartoons:
- Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice
Dragons Love Tacos 1 and 2 (Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri)
I have a soft spot for sequels that go big: think about the gleeful escalation from Alien to Aliens, Pitch Black to The Chronicles of Riddick, or Weekend At Bernie’s to Weekend At Bernie’s 2. The Dragons Love Tacos duology has a similar audaciousness. The first book is a deadpan guide to throwing a taco party that will win over every dragon on the block. Because after all, “The only thing dragons love more than tacos or parties is – taco parties.” The book then adds, “(Taco parties are parties with lots of tacos.)” Then things fly delightfully off the rails. The second book starts off with a banner headline in the New York Times proclaiming that tacos are now extinct. Then it introduces a time machine. Eventually things cumulate in a wonderful, horrible scene in which giant, living tacos consume miniature dragons. I can’t even imagine what a third book would do to top that, but if they announce one I’m camping out outside Barnes and Noble to get it. —Matt Belinkie