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Why is The Iliad a classic? November 10, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.
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Please welcome Terrence Hawkins, author of The Rage of Achilles, who is here to share his thoughts on why people are still interested in reading The Iliad after all these years.  Be sure to check out the bottom of this post for your chance to win a copy of The Rage of Achilles and another great book for yourself!

When I wrote about The Rage of Achilles a year ago I was focused—-typically enough—on my own experience of authorship.  That is, what it was like to retell a classic. But over the course of twelve months of readings and signings and reviews, favorable and otherwise, I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm the original still generates.  So now I’m interested by the opposite question—what makes a classic classic?  Why do people still care?  Why do they read it?

Let’s face it: there are a lot of obstacles between Homer and us.  His (or their) characters inhabit a world so completely different from our own that they might as well belong to another species.  The gods are everywhere, lurking in every grove, personifying the river Scamander, meddling in every minor conflict.  And Homer meant it: the gods were no mere allegory for natural forces or innate psychic drives but actors as real as any soldier.   Though of course much more to be feared.  So for the Iliad’s human characters, religion is no Sabbath spiritual exercise but a matter of hard practical necessity.  And their motives often arise from considerations natural to a bronze-age warrior society but completely foreign to ours: pride, or its converse abhorrence of shame, the need to save face even at the expense of the rest of your skin.

And of course another factor making the Iliad occasionally hard-going is the strictures imposed by its origin as a transcribed oral poem.  That is, a lot of repetition and reliance on epithets so that the audience could keep characters straight in their heads over the course of many evenings’ recitation.

But for so many these barriers are easily overcome.  Why?

I think the reason the Iliad still speaks to us so clearly is that no matter how strange the setting or different the characters it is still a fundamentally human story about the most basic relationships and motives.   It’s a story about brothers—-Hector and Paris on the Trojan side, Agamemnon and Menelaus on the Greek, in each case the older brother prosecuting a war on the younger’s behalf. It’s also about fathers and sons; Priam ransoms back his boy, which Achilles surrenders out of respect for his own father.   And while the pride-driven behavior of Aegean warlords occasionally seems inexplicable, Menelaus’ and Achilles’ thirst for revenge, and Hector’s defense of his country, right or wrong, at all costs, are compelling and contemporary.

So I think the Iliad has survived   thirty centuries to remain the cornerstone of Western literature because it first showed us what a story was all about.  It hasn’t changed.

About the author:

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Yale. His work has appeared in Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Keyhole, Pindeldyboz, Ape Culture, Eclectica, Megaera, the Binnacle, and the New Haven Register. It has also appeared on Connecticut Public Radio. He is a trial lawyer in Connecticut. His website can be found at www.terencehawkins.net.


The Prize: a signed copy of The Rage of Achilles, by Terrence Hawkins AND a copy of The War That Killed Achilles, by Carolyn Alexander

The Rules:

  • Leave a comment sharing why you think a book becomes a classic
  • Make sure your comment includes a way to contact you
  • Per the publisher, this contest is open to US residents only
  • Contest runs through Nov. 28
  • Winner will have 24 hours to respond to the notification email

October ROC Recap November 5, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.
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The Really Old Classics Challenge has hit the half-way mark – how are you doing with your reading goal? Last month I told you that I’d read the preface of Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE; now I’m working on the last third of the book.  It’s really short but there is just so much in there that I don’t want to rush though it.

We have two participants who are going full steam ahead and tearing through books this month, and they are even reading some of the same books!

  • My Readers Block read the Dorothy Sayers translation of THE DIVINE COMEDY and gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars.  eclectic/eccentric read the Penguin Classics edition and really appreciated the way Dante made the punishments fit the crimes in his tale.
  • My Reader’s Block also read THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS, a play based on the 12th century Iranian mystical poem; unfortunately it wasn’t what she hoped it would be.
  • eclectic/eccentricalso took on an adaptation this month: THE PENELOPIAD. Her review includes other books/movies based on Homer’s ODYSSEY.
  • And finally, My Reader’s Block tackled GILGAMESH.  She called it “one of the finest and most accessible early classic translations that I have read.”

There are two more months left in this challenge – plenty of time to read just ONE Really Old Classic!  Good luck.

Reminder & A Winner October 26, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.
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Reminder: If you have read a book for the Really Old Classics Challenge this month, be sure to post your link on the 2010 Reviews page. I’m putting together a recap of this month’s reviews shortly and I’d love to include yours!

A Winner: Congratulations to Trisha @ eclectic/eccentric! She won a copy of Laurel Corona’s new book Penelope’s Daughter in our contest.  I hope you enjoy the book Trisha!

“The Odyssey” Read-a-long October 18, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Reading Ideas, Uncategorized.
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Are you planning on reading THE ODYSSEY for the Really Old Classics Challenge?  Maybe you should!  Trish @ Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity is hosting a read-a-long of this fantastic book in November.  It’s always more fun to tackle a classic with friends, so do consider joining in.

Here are the details, from Trish’s blog:

The Odyssey is divided into 24 books and we will read 6 books each week.  The schedule is as follows:

Nov 1-8: Books I-VI; 1-6
Nov 9-15: Books VII-XII; 7-12
Nov 16-22: Books XIII-XVIII; 13-18
Nov 23-30: Books XIX-XXIV; 19-24

I’ll put up a recap post and a Mister Linky on Mondays so you can link to your recap posts as well (except the last week which ends on Tuesday–think of it as an extra day for Thanksgiving).

A few notes
**The Odyssey will completely fulfill the requirements for the Really Old Classics Challenge!  Go sign up!
**My translation is by Robert Fitzgerald but the Robert Fagles version is supposed to be fantastic
**Consider listening to the audiobook version! This tale was originally told in the oral tradition.
**We’re all a little scared of this classic–you’re not alone in your timid feelings!  It’s OK.

You can get more details and sign up by clicking here.  Happy reading!

Did Odysseus Have a Daughter? Why Not? October 7, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.

Please welcome Laurel Corona, author of Penelope’s Daughter.  Check out her reasons for “messing with” one of Homer’s epics and her thoughts on the absence of realistic women in these kinds of stories.  Then read on for the chance to win a copy of her book  for yourself!

Recently a number of authors have spun off new novels from classics, focusing on secondary characters or imagining what happened later to a much beloved one.  This is fun idea, because I think everyone who falls in love with a book doesn’t want it to end.

In the case of a work everyone knows was fiction to begin with, like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, it’s easy to go with the flow. Elizabeth Bennet and Jane were inventions, so why can’t their stories continue? I frequently get asked what happened next to Chiaretta, one of the sisters in my book, The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice.  It’s always struck me as a strange question, because how would I know?  Really the reader’s answer is as good as mine, and I always say I view Chiaretta as someone I used to know whom I now have lost track of.

For that reason, my partner’s reaction to my idea for a novel based on the Odyssey struck me as odd. “What do you think about Penelope being pregnant with a daughter when Odysseus goes off to the Trojan War,” I asked, “a daughter he doesn’t even know exists?”

“You can’t mess with Homer!” he replied.

“Why not?” I asked.  I realize now, although I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, that he and many others see Homer’s work as history–at least on a basic level, despite all the monsters and gods. If Odysseus really existed, I couldn’t just go around adding people to his family, because I had an obligation to the essential facts of the story.

I see my partner’s point, although I was always inclined to see the story of the Odyssey as fiction, and therefore fair game. But the deeper I dug into the epic poem itself, the more convinced I became that Homer (and, to be fair, the earlier bards from whom he got his tales) would not have seen a daughter as relevant, so even if she existed, she would not have merited a mention.

To Homer, women are relevant for two reasons.  The first is that they make trouble for men. In many cases the whole story is about that trouble (think of Circe turning men to swine, or Helen and her fabled trip to Troy). The second reason is that occasionally a woman behaves ideally, at least from a male perspective, and she must be singled out for admiration.  Clearly to Homer, Penelope is this type. I read the Odyssey over and over while I was working on Penelope’s Daughter, and I got really tired of seeing Penelope do literally nothing but weep bitter tears and bemoan her fate. All she wanted was to have her man back, and she would never—NEVER!—be unfaithful to him.

“Come on!” I found myself saying. Odysseus is gone for nearly twenty years—wouldn’t tears get a bit old, especially for a husband she barely had time to get to know?  It is, I think, a much cherished fantasy that a love left behind would cry her (or his) eyes out forever, but it’s important to remember that Penelope was probably early in her teens when she married, and she had only enough time to produce a one-year-old son before her husband left for two decades. Two, maybe three years together, nineteen apart—how much about him could she honestly remember?

My guess is that, if the story of Penelope is true, she spent those years as a productive, effective queen.  As she matured, she found her voice and her power. That’s the Penelope I pictured as I wrote. Though the novel tells the story of her daughter Xanthe, one of my favorite things about writing it was getting to explore Penelope’s story from a perspective more realistic, affirmative—and likely—than Homer’s.

Off the top of my head, I recall four women in the Odyssey, other than servants and goddesses: Penelope, Anticleia (Odysseus’ mother), Helen, and Helen’s daughter Hermione, who merits a few lines when she gets married (one of the few important things women do).  A few other women are mentioned, and Penelope’s sister’s spirit appears in one scene. Homer never got real. We’re one half of the population in real life, if rarely so in epic stories. The lack of variety in women’s personalities and activities doesn’t mean they didn’t have that variety.

My work as a historical novelist is focused on hearing the whispers of forgotten women and telling their stories.  I became convinced as I wrote that Odysseus and Penelope really did have a daughter, and by the time I finished the book, I thought it odd to read the text and not see her name, because I knew she was there.  I hope readers of Penelope’s Daughter will feel the same.


Giveaway Details

  • Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of Penelope’s Daughter; be sure to include your email address if it is not available through your blog or profile.
  • Contest is open to those with US/Canadian mailing addresses, per the publisher.
  • Winner will be selected using Random.org on October 25 and notified via email.
  • Winner will have 48 hours to respond in order to claim the prize.  If the original winner does not respond by the deadline, a new winner will be selected.

September ROC Recap October 1, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Reading and Reviewing Classics.
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The first month of the Really Old Classics Challenge ended yesterday and here’s what we know:

  • Bev @ My Reader’s Block is making excellent progress!  She read Dante’s Diving Comedy, both the Hell and Purgatory sections.  She enjoyed Hell better than Purgatory (it IS a bit funny to write that!) but considers both books to be poetically beautiful.
  • Shelley @ Book Clutter is considering starting Virgil’s The Aeneid in October, but so far she’s just flipped through the pages.
  • Heather @ Age 30+ … A Lifetime of Books (me) started reading The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli but only got through the preface so far.  I’ve read this before and am wondering if I’ll enjoy it as much this time around.

This may not seem like great progress but considering that there are three more months in this challenge and that the goal is to read just one ROC, I’d say we’re off to a pretty good start!

ROC’s in September? September 29, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.
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I know it is only the first month of the challenge but did anyone complete a Really Old Classic in September?  If so, be sure to add your link to the 2010 Review page (look for that tab at the top of the challenge blog).

As for me, I decided to revisit an old favorite: Machiavelli’s The Prince.  (Of course I haven’t actually started reading it yet…) I may also add a few other ROCs if I feel like I can fit them in.

If you haven’t finished a book, let me know in the comments what you’ve started or what you plan to read!

My experience with Really Old Classics September 8, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Reading and Reviewing Classics, Reading and Reviewing Retellings.
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Hi ROC participants! It’s your challenge co-host Heather J, here to share with you some of my experiences with Really Old Classics.  My hope is that what I’ve learned may help you choose books and formats that are right for you.  Do chime in and let me know if I’m successful! (Links included below take you to my reviews on my blog.)

The Language

Many ROCs are written using formal or outdated language.  This can make them seem very intimidating to the modern reader.  If there’s a book that intrigues you, give it a shot!  Usually the story will suck you in once you get used to the language (most ROCs are really quite exciting).  If you’re new to ROCs you may want to try something short, like the play MEDEA, by Euripides.  The story should keep your attention and you’ll likely be able to handle the antiquated language for the short duration of the play.  That said, if you are really struggling with a book feel free to put it aside and find something that works better for you.  I did that with THE GOLDEN ASS, by Apuleius, and I couldn’t be happier with that decision.

The Format

The way in which you experience a book can have a great impact on your enjoyment of that book.  Some stories were originally meant to be read while others were originally meant to be told by a storyteller.  Epics like THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY are excellent to experience via audiobook; when I listened to them I felt like I was sitting by a fire hearing these epics told by a master storyteller.  These two are perhaps my favorite ROCs and I think that is due in great part to the way I experienced them.  However, not all ROCs lend themselves to audio format; I don’t think the Viking epic VOLSUNGASAGA would have worked any better for me if I had listened to it instead of reading it.  Some things just aren’t a good fit!

The Translation

All translations are not equal.  To ensure a good ROC experience you may want to sample a few different translations of the same book and see which one works best for you.  Do you want an ancient epic poem to read like a poem or like a story?  Are you more concerned with the original intention of the author or with the original wording?   Former challenge host Rebecca wrote an excellent post about this a while back; if you are interested at all in the various ways a book can be translated, check out the excerpts she provides from four different translations of THE ILIAD.


In addition to your local bookstore and library there are two websites I’d recommend for finding ROCs.  Project Gutenberg is a great resource and I’ve found that the versions on that site often include footnotes or additional info that is helpful to me as I read; my experience with MEDEA was greatly enhanced by what I learned in the footnotes.  The Online Medieval and Classical Library is another helpful place to find ROCs (that’s where I read VOLSUNGASAGA).

Modern Retellings

There are innumerable modern books that retell stories from ROCs.  Some, like GATES OF FIRE and TIDES OF WAR (both by Stephen Pressfield), retell the battle histories written by Herodotus and others.  Others retell ROCs from an different character’s perspective.  Two examples of this that I have experience with are LAVINA, by Ursula K. LeGuin and Til We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis.  For me, a retelling is more enjoyable if I am already familiar with the original work. That isn’t true for everyone though, and most retellings stand on their own very well.

Challenge Starts TODAY!! September 1, 2010

Posted by literarilyspeaking1 in Uncategorized.
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Hello everyone and welcome to September 1! Seems like just yesterday we were ringing in the New Year, doesn’t it?

But, with fall comes all sorts of awesome things: Pumpkins, changing leaves, cooler temperatures (A welcome change here in the Midwest), Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes, and, today, the beginning of the Really Old Classics Challenge!


We’ve got lots of awesome reading and reviewing in store for you this year, along with occasional reading lists, suggestions, and maybe even some guest posts. Don’t forget to stop back in each month to post your own Really Old Classics reviews and read what others think about the books they’ve read. The challenge runs today through December 31. Click here to sign up and join in all the fun.

Subscribe to this blog to get all the information!

But, most important, get out there and read, read, READ!!

Coming soon! August 30, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.
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The 2010 Really Old Classics Challenge is coming on Sept. 1.  You can sign up now, so get crackin’!