BOOK REVIEW: The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop

The Dolphins, the Whales and the GudgeonThe Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tiny book is part of a series put out by Penguin called Little Black Classics. This one collects about 55 of Aesop’s fables together. These are all short fables, few longer than a page and many of only a few lines.

The title is an interesting choice in that that fable isn’t among the most well-known of those assembled. However, some oft the most famous have rather banal titles like: “The Fox and the Goat” or “The Wolf and the Lamb.” [Though “The Frogs Who Demanded a King” is also among the most well-known of the included stories.]

I found the collected fables to be thought-provoking, as well as being a broad sample (not a lot of the same moral repeating.) My favorites, for their cleverness, were: “The Stag at the Spring and the Lion,” “The Field Mouse and the Town Mouse,” “The Woodcutter and Hermes,” and “The Ass Carrying Salt.” Your results may vary.

I like that they’ve embraced the short format with these books. It often used to be the case that they would pad out a 50- or 60-page book like this to 120 pages, using filler, forwards, needless illustrations, and useless epilogues. This book is just the fables. (Most, but not all the fables, include a single line summation of the fable’s moral. While I don’t think this is necessary for adult readers, it might be helpful in explaining the story to children.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles

The Oedipus TrilogyThe Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One needn’t be educated in the Greek classics to know that somewhere in this trilogy there is a man who gets intimate with his mom. However, the common conception of Oedipus —as in the Oedipal Complex—probably has more to do with Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis than it does with this story.

The three plays of this trilogy are “Oedipus the King” [a.k.a. “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”], “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” [pronounced “an-tig-o-nee” rather than “anti-gone.”] Of the three plays, the first is the most well-known.

In “Oedipus the King,” the titular character is facing a crisis in his kingdom. When the oracles are consulted about how the calamity might be brought to an end, Oedipus is told that he must banish the killer of his predecessor, i.e. the previous king of Thebes. Oedipus consults his own oracle to find out who the ne’er-do-well is who murdered the last king, and the fortune-teller tells Oedipus that he’ll never say who committed the killing —but acknowledges that he does know who it was. Oedipus mocks and threatens the oracle until the fortune-teller gets fed up and tells the king that it was he, Oedipus, who killed his predecessor. Oedipus doesn’t believe it at first, thinking it’s an attempt to facilitate a coup. Far ickier than the accusation of murder is the fact that —if true— it means that Oedipus has been getting busy with his own mother and has even sired children with her. Oedipus calls for an investigation. When a peasant who saw everything is called to testify, his story strikes Oedipus as disturbingly familiar. It turns out that Oedipus’s blood father (the previous king) had been told by his own oracle that his son would kill him and steal his wife, and so he had baby Oedipus sent away to die. Oedipus (who had been rescued from being staked up on a mountain) was coming through Thebes, not knowing it was his homeland, when he had a skirmish on the road with the man that he didn’t realize was both the king and his father. Later, Oedipus marries the queen (apparently there were no busts or portrait paintings of the last king anywhere) and becomes the king without knowing that the man he’d killed in self-defense was the last king / his father. When the truth revealed, everything goes south. The queen kills herself, and Oedipus’s response is almost as severe. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and goes into exile. Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, says she will be the ex-king’s guide, and because the old man is blind and not familiar with where he’s going, he doesn’t have much choice but to accept.

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Oedipus and Antigone arrive at neighborhood on the fringes of Athens, i.e. Colonus, and are planning to take up residency. The locals are welcoming until they find out the blind man is Oedipus. The story of the ex-king who killed his father and got it on with his mother has spread far and wide. The townspeople agree to call in their king, Theseus, and let him decide. Theseus decides to shelter the Thebean ex-king, being moved by his story of how Oedipus was unwittingly ruined and how the former king accepted his punishment when his offenses were brought to light. Theseus’s support becomes more complicated when Creon, a royal from Thebes, shows up and says they need Oedipus back because an oracle now says that the location of his burial will determine the outcome of a future conflict. Oedipus says no way, and Creon has Antigone and her sister (who joined them at Colonus to warn Oedipus) kidnapped. Theseus faces a serious challenge because now his actions might bring the city-state to war, let alone offending the gods. However, he sticks to his guns and rescues the daughters and agrees to personally oversee Oedipus’s burial (so that no one can grave-rob and move Oedipus’s body to a position that would create a more pleasing forecast from the oracles.)

“Antigone” takes place after the death of Oedipus. The dutiful Antigone is now back in Thebes. When her brother Polyneices is killed and Creon orders that the prince not be buried, Antigone refuses to accept the decree. She steals the body and gives it a proper burial. Antigone was engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon, but Creon decrees that the woman will be imprisoned in a cave for disobedience of the king’s order. Haemon asks his father to be reasonable, but Creon will have none of it. Eventually, the words of an oracle convince Creon to change his mind, but he finds himself too late. Like Oedipus, various ruin then befalls Creon.

While the details of the story may strain credulity in places, these works are powerful morality tales. The recurring theme is that one can’t make an end-run around fate by way of vice and neither can one otherwise manhandle events to achieve a desirable outcome. Oedipus’s father sends his son to be killed, but the outcome remains the same. Creon can’t plant Oedipus’s corpse where he pleases and neither can he deny a man proper burial. It’s almost a karmic tale. Perhaps, the path to pleasing the gods is through virtue, and not through finagling one’s way to compliance with forecasts.

I find it fascinating how crucial a role is played by oracles throughout the three plays—and what that says about human nature. The fortune tellers are always right and are always heeded. In a sense, this story tells one about humanity’s fear of uncertainty, what people are willing to do to allay that fear, and how the world is ultimately too complex for those attempts to work out. The law of unintended consequences remains ever-present.

I enjoyed these plays. They are brief, stirring, readable, and thought-provoking. I would recommend them for any reader—particularly those interested in the classics.

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Shame List: 25 books I should have read by now

To force myself to get cracking on more of the best books, I’m baring my shame. Below is a list of some of the books that it’s downright appalling I’ve failed to read as of yet. This is by no means a complete list. In fact, the initial list I compiled was about three times as long. (And it still wasn’t all-inclusive.)

I had to apply a few selection criteria to get to a reasonably-sized list. Some of these criteria are unique to a particular book, and will be noted under the book’s listing. However, there are also general criteria. If a book is commonly referred to in pop culture and I haven’t read it, that’s a cause for concern. In other words, if I’m not getting the literary references on The Simpsons, I’m a little embarrassed.  (Or pop science references made on Big Bang Theory.)

Also, I believe that one should read broadly and outside one’s comfort box. This means that one should read the counter arguments to what one believes, so as to not be happy stewing in one’s ignorance. This is part of becoming wiser and trading one’s narrow view of the world for one which is broader.

Some of these choices are idiosyncratic to myself– as opposed to being classics or masterpieces. For example, I was trained as a Social Scientist, so books on that subject might not make most people’s “essential reads” list. Also, I’m a martial artist, so my bonus picks are tied to that interest.

So, in alphabetical order, without further ado:


Brief history of time

1.) A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This may be an odd choice as I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t understand anything Hawking says beyond the Acknowledgements page. I once read that this book had the distinction of being “the most unread book on everybody’s bookshelf.” (I don’t know whether that’s urban legend or established fact– but I can believe it.) An Engineering PhD student from a very prestigious technical university once admitted to me that he couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. I did read The Universe in a Nutshell, which has a lot of pictures and, thus, is more my speed; it was kind of “A Brief History of Time … for Dummies.”


Confederacy of Dunces

2.) A Confederacy of Dunces by James Kennedy Toole

The backstory behind this book is fascinating and has an important moral. Toole killed himself, presumably because he couldn’t get it published. Then, posthumously, it became a critically-acclaimed hit after his mother took it around and forced literary types to read it. NEVER GIVE UP!


Farewell to Arms

3.) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big Hemingway fan. I’ve read a few of his novels, many of his short stories, and even some of his non-fiction. This is my elusive great white Hemingwhale.


As I lay dying

4.) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I was a late comer to Faulkner. I’d always heard that his writing was wordy and that it straggled. As those are bad habits of my own, I figured I should feed myself more Hemingway-esque writing. However, after reading several of Faulkner’s stories and his novel Sanctuary, I developed a man-crush on his use of language.


Beloved

5.) Beloved by Toni Morrison

Like many books on my list, I’ve got a copy of this on my bookshelf, and I even started it once. I’m not sure what distracted me. I picked it up originally to see how Morrison wrote accented dialogue. This is part of my advice to self to read outside my own history and experience.


cloud atlas

6.) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I like cross-genre books. Furthermore, I’ve heard good things about the organization of this as a series of incomplete stories that are tied together in the final part.


crime and punishment

7.) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is another one that is on my bookshelf and that I started. It’s not that I didn’t like the opening (though like most all literature of its era is not exactly punchy.) Rather, it’s that I tend to end up with too many books up in the air at once. Therefore, if one takes over, the others get dropped.

I hope I don’t have a subconscious aversion to Russian literature, but–I must admit–I’ve read far too little Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, and (to a lesser extent) Chekhov. (I’ve read quite a few Chekhov short stories.)


Don quixote

8.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Again, I own this one. I don’t believe that I ever started it. However, anything with a sense of humor is a winner in my book.


GunsGermsSteel

9.) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

While doing my Masters in International Affairs, I almost took a course  that used this as a textbook, but I had a conflict with a required course. The question of how some civilizations progress (when others don’t) is fascinating to me–as is the subject of Diamond’s more recent book Collapse, which looks at why certain civilizations unravel.


Heart of Darkness

10.) Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This one is particularly sad because: a.) I own it. b.) I’ve started it on more than one occasion. c.) It really does seem like a fascinating story, and d.) [the kicker] It’s extremely short. It’s not even properly called a novel, but more a novella or–maybe even–a long short story.


Les Miserables

11.) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

I hate to admit that I might have some subtle anti-French bias because I’ve never read any Hugo or Camus.


Leviathan

12.) Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

This is another one that is about balanced reading. I’ve always tended toward a libertarian view of governance. So I’ve read John Locke and many other arguments for why government should stay small and limited. Leviathan is the granddaddy of counter claims. It’s about why the government must be involved in everything. I’ve read a lot of commentary on the Hobbes-Locke divide, but not this book. While I may not agree with Hobbes, that’s exactly why I should have read him. I have read Marx and others who’ve made more modern arguments for the primacy of governing over the governed.


Life of Pi

13.) Life of Pi by Yan Martel

I read the cover blurb of this when it came out and thought it would be interesting. When the movie was coming out, I thought about it again, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.


Lolita

14.) Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

I saw the 1962 movie, but have never read this book. This is one that is often cited in pop culture. I know the general premise, but it would be good to read it.


Meditations

15.) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I’ve read quotes from this book, and I once started it from the beginning. I agree with the life philosophy espoused in it, so I should have finished it by now. I particularly like the quote, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”


lives of a cell

16.) The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas

I began it once, and it’s tiny. So double shame on me for not finishing this one yet.


Origin of species

17.) The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

I’ve read a lot of commentary on Darwin’s ideas, but not this book– at least not in full. I include it because it’s one of the seminal works on the biological world as we know it. It contains many ideas that should be considered when reflecting on the nature of man and animal alike.


Satanic Verses

18.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Any writing that makes someone take a hit out on the author must be powerful stuff. Enough said.


The Stranger

19.) The Stranger by Albert Camus

This is one whose pop culture references, I suspect, elude me.


things they carried

20.) The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien

I’ve just heard that his is an outstanding and very readable book. It’s supposedly a great example of a sparse but evocative style. I’m interested in the literature of war, so it’s right up my alley.


Tipping point

21.) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

This is really a stand-in for a number of pop social science titles by Gladwell that examine the behavior and decision making of individuals and groups. Blink might have been a choice as well, but I’m a little more interested in the tipping point phenomena.  I’ve read vast troves on behavioral economics and related fields, but Gladwell is such a household name that I should probably be more familiar with his work.

 


The Trial

22.) The Trial by Franz Kafka

Another one that I own, I’ve started, which has many pop culture references, but which I’ve never gotten through.

 


wisdom of crowds

23.) The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

This is sort of a counter claim social science book. I once read an old book entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay. MacKay suggests (as Tommy Lee Jones did in Men in Black) that in groups otherwise intelligent people are stupid and panicky.


to kill a mockingbird

24.) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Again, there are tons of pop culture references out there on this one. I’ve heard it’s a well-crafted book, but–for whatever reason– I’ve never read it.

 


Ulysses

25.) Ulysses by James Joyce

I have no illusions that this would be fun reading, but some consider it the best English language novel of all time. Also, I have read some of James Joyce’s shorter stuff, and I dig his use of language. My fear is that it will be like “the greatest American novel,” Moby Dick, which I did read and would rate far lower.


Bonus Shame Picks

I just realized that my list was appallingly Western-centric, and so I’ve added a couple bonus picks  to rectify this because I’m too lazy to go back and cut a couple of the others.


Tale of genji

26.) The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Written in the 11th century, this Japanese work is considered by many to be the world’s first novel–or at least the first modern novel.


Water Margin

27.) The Water Margin by Shi Nai’an

This 14th century Chinese novel is one of the four classics of ancient Chinese literature. It also supposedly contains a lot of kung fu flick elements.

 


Your turn. Come on,  confession is good for the soul. What books are you ashamed that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet?