American Lit, Book Review, Fiction, Mark Twain, Religion, Satire, Short Story

Thoughts: Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain

CaptainStormfield

 

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 37

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven is a satire of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s The Gates Ajar, which was published in 1868 and became widely popular at the time.  In that religious novel, the protagonist-narrator, Mary Cabot, discusses her ideas of the afterlife with her widowed aunt, shortly after the main character’s brother has been killed.  The author had lost her mother, stepmother, and fiancé in short order, during the American Civil War, and wrote the book as a sort of coping mechanism, and also as a way to reach out to women readers in similar situations.  She claimed that the book was divinely inspired (“The angel said unto me, ‘Write!’ and I wrote”), and its positive views of heaven, one wherein families and friends would be reunited (a newish concept, not based in the true vision of heaven, as explained in the Bible) would later inspire other writers, such as Emily Dickinson.

Although Twain began writing the book sometime around 1868, it was not published for the first time until 1907, just a few years before he died.  It was the last of Twain’s works that would be published in his lifetime and it clearly reflects Twain’s disillusionment with the promise of heaven and a “happily ever after.”  Twain, like Ward, suffered great losses in his life.  His wife and his daughters all died in relatively quick succession, and Twain struggled in his later years with depression and anger.  Although always a satirist, the themes in his stories became much darker, more biting and anti-religious, as his own sadness and heartache grew.

Captain Stormfield, though comic and seemingly light in tone, clearly demonstrates Twain’s darker outlook on life and the afterlife (or lack thereof).  The main character is Captain Elias Stormfield, who is traveling on a ship through space, chasing comets and other vessels from distant planets.  He becomes lost along the way and ends up at the gates of heaven.  But, as it turns out, he’s at the wrong entrance (which is realized only after much discussion with the gatekeepers, who must evaluate maps for days on end before they can locate our tiny, miniscule, germ of a planet, Earth) and must be transported to the correct gates before he can be admitted to the afterlife.

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Captain Stormfield was inspired by Captain Edgar Wakeman, a sea captain whom Clemens met in 1866. Wakeman’s eccentric personality made a tremendous impact on Twain, and he is the inspiration for many other Twain characters. Wakeman’s retelling of a dream he had about his own visit to heaven was the inspiration for the story.

The bottom line is this:  Twain uses humor to poke fun at how very silly are our beliefs in heaven.  The evolution of this “new heaven” came about during and after the American Civil War, when so many people were in need of comfort; they found this comfort in the belief that loved ones would be seen again in heaven.  This new heaven is the one we, most of us, think about today – so that evolution clearly held true, though Twain mocked it from the start.  Twain seems to be calling out these fantasies as exactly that: fantasies.  He had no illusions of being able to meet his wife and daughter in heaven again, and that stark view of life and the afterlife certainly affected his writing and his temperament.

But it is not just the vision of heaven he mocks, but also the way we perceive greatness in the here and now.  Nearly everyone is present in heaven, from Napoleon to Socrates, King Henry VIII to Shakespeare.  But, as Stormfield’s guide,  Sandy McWilliams, explains – those great and influential figures from history, be it the epic poet, Homer, or the prophet Mohammed, if lined up end-to-end, might still come up at the rear, behind average, everyday folks who were capable of so much but were never afforded the opportunity to be great.  Earth’s heaven is also geographically similar to the physical earth, but when a new arrival goes looking for someone to talk to in his home region, say England, he might soon discover that the majority of souls wandering that region do not speak English at all, because the history of that land is so ancient, and our perceptions of it always so “now” – so self-centered.

Captain Stormfield learns soon enough that heaven is not what he expected it to be.  Although he does don a halo and wings, and sits on a cloud playing a harp, he soon realizes that to do this forever would be madness.  How boring would it be to sit in one place for all eternity, strutting strings and smiling at people?

In this short story, Twain asks us to re-evaluate our conceptions of celebrity, fame, and power, to keep our tiny little planet and our tiny little lives in perspective – to, in effect, check our egos at the door.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  High School+
Interest:  Humor, Satire, Atheism, American Literature, History.

Notable Quotes:

“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious.”

“Inside of fifteen minutes I was a mile on my way towards the cloud- banks and about a million people along with me. Most of us tried to fly, but some got crippled and nobody made a success of it. So we concluded to walk, for the present, till we had had some wing practice.”

“It’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve heard of yet, Sam, though it’s about as different from the one I was brought up on as a live princess is different from her own wax figger.”

“You have got the same mixed-up idea about these things that everybody has down there. I had it once, but I got over it. Down there they talk of the heavenly King–and that is right–but then they go right on speaking as if this was a republic and everybody was on a dead level with everybody else, and privileged to fling his arms around anybody he comes across, and be hail-fellow-well-met with all the elect, from the highest down. How tangled up and absurd that is! How are you going to have a republic under a king?”

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2012 Challenges, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Diana Wynne Jones, Fairy Tale, Family, Fantasy, Magic, Magical March, Middle Grade, Satire, Sibling Rivalry, Young Adult

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 13


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howls Moving Castle came about when a young boy asked the author to write a story about a castle that moved.  Knowing that ahead of time added an interesting element to the experience, as it was fun to see how that one small, random request morphed in Jones’s imagination and eventually came out as this very entertaining and surprisingly meaningful book.  The story is about a young woman, Sophie Hatter, who is the eldest of three sisters.  The book immediately takes on a satirical tone, simultaneously mimicking and mocking the literary fantasy (and particularly fairy tale) traditions of yore.  Sophie and her family live in the Kingdom of Ingary, where conventional fairy tale tropes are in effect facts of life.  As the eldest sister, Sophie knows she must take care of her family first – probably living to become an old maid while her sisters get to go to the balls, court dashing princes, and study the magical arts.  Things begin to change, though, when Sophie is mistaken for her sister by the Witch of the Waste. She is cursed into appearing like a haggardly old woman and she soon leaves town to find a cure, bringing her to Howl’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and learns that she has certain magical talent of her own.  She eventually helps Howl in a final show-down between good and evil (or, perhaps, bad and worse?) against the Witch of the Waste, and learns that her curse might not have been all it –or she- appeared to be.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

Although a traditional young fantasy tale in many ways, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much about a young woman’s coming-of-age.  Just as Sophie is learning to appreciate herself – seeing herself as attractive for the first time and exchanging drab gray clothing for brighter hues, she is cursed and becomes a gnarled old woman.  Jones is exploring the nature of individuality and self-worth; only by becoming this older woman can Sophie begin to understand and appreciate who she is – a strong-willed, confident, powerful individual.  She begins to realize that she is not destined to be just “the eldest sibling” as tradition would have it.  Sophie discovers that she is in command of her own fate and that those around her, including her family and new friends, will love and respect her all the more as she embraces who she is and learns to respect herself.  The other characters in the story are equally deep, though they may appear flippant or standardized at first glance.  Wizard Howl, for instance, is an excellently drawn Byronic hero.  Seduction of young maidens is his modus operandi, so much so, in fact, that he is feared throughout the kingdom as the wizard who eats young girls’ hearts (taken literally by the people – which makes him a feared character, although in reality he is quite harmless and endearing, if not more than a bit vain).  The reader discovers through Howl’s assistant Michael, that Howl has never truly been in love with any of the women he has courted – and he knows this because Howl always looks so incredibly dashing when he goes out on the prowl.  Near to the end of the story, though, we realize poor Howl must have fallen head-over-heels for someone because, for the first time, he is totally disheveled. Ultimately, the characters are much deeper than they first appear to be; when the reader sits back and examines their purpose and their connections to other characters, the development of and sub-layers for each, but particularly the major characters, is quite striking.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

One minor point of contention for me was that the smartness of the story did not quite seem to gel with the middle grade reading level of the prose.  It is, after all, a middle grade book – so making it readable by the prospective age group is absolutely paramount.  While I understand the primary audience is young readers, I couldn’t help but be a tiny (tiny) bit put-off by the sparse style and simple language, when the story itself is so witty and multi-layered.  Still, this is the smallest of small complaints because, in reality, Jones does what she sets out to do; she has produced a well-written, well-constructed, well-paced story for young readers, with added elements that give the book richness which older readers will enjoy and appreciate too.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this book, for book lovers, is that it is rife with literary allusions.  Jones references a plethora of authors and stories from the fantasy canon, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Arthurian Legend, and also from British literature, including Shakespeare and John Donne.  These little gems are delightful for those who recognize them, but also work well in the storyline in general, so young readers will appreciate their presence at face-value.  This type of sub-context, coupled with the major themes of love and destiny (Sophie is grappling with the fates, fighting to break the fairy tale mold placed on her as eldest sister, though on the surface she has seemed to resign herself to the traditional role) makes for a fascinatingly and surprisingly rich story for young (and older) readers.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family, Coming-of-Age, Sibling Rivalry, Love, Perception, Fairy Tale, Satire, Jealousy, Destiny.

Notable Quotes:

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

“I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.”

“I must apologize for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

This book was recommended to me by Amanda.

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2012 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Drugs, Dystopia, Gay Lit, GLBT, Postmodernism, Satire, Sexuality, The Beats, William S. Burroughs

Experimental Review: Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

YTD: 03

William S. Burroughs is an unusual author, and this book irritated me, in a way. I’ve decided to adjust my review a bit to fit my mood, reaction, and the author.  I do this out of love and respect (and frustration).  William S. Burroughs was a master of the cut-up technique – he was a postmodern writer, “Godfather” to the Beat generation, and he oftentimes had a habit of writing in a nonsensical, satirical way, particularly about things – political/social- that he felt were being addressed nonsensically by those in power.  This includes, primarily, drugs, sex, and privacy.  As Burroughs is a favorite of mine, and because this book and its predecessor (the third and first, respectively, in a trilogy, which includes a book called The Ticket that Exploded, which I’ll likely read later this year) were so ridiculously cut-up and disjointed, I’ve decided to pay homage in my review, thusly:


Plot/Story: 2 – Plot/Story could work with better development.

Third in a trilogy.  Fourth in a quartet.  Nova Express – agents of the body searching for, fighting against, elements exploding.  Some sex – homosexual, heterosexual, asexual- mild.  Tame. Boring, comparatively.  Not the Wild Boys. Third book following Naked Lunch makes Burroughs prudish, bizarre, twisted, normal, odd. Remember disembowelment?  Remember parasites – anuses, walking and talking?  Anuses like mouths, with teeth to bite.  Burroughs forgets – forgets the past, forgets the future, forgets, mid-sentence.  Remembers.  Where are the cats? The balance?  Closed captioning provided by the Nova Agents – looking for you.  Put you on drugs to make you weak. Make you stupid.  Catch you on drugs – detox, death.  Double paradox.  Double jeopardy.  No-win situation.  Chemical and biological hazards, walking bombs, all of us.  Overdose.


Characterization: 2 – Characters slightly developed.

Character development.  Human faces, human emotions, inconsequential.  Attachments where attachments due, feeling detached.  Characters Good?  Bad?  These are descriptors – qualifying phrases applied to one and another, sometimes with cause and sometimes without.  Fruit salad.  Rabbits.  “Agents.”  Characterization lacking – list of goods, non-existence, list of bads, like The Goodbye Mister.  People stand for things, things mean what?  Control elements vs. language – power vs. power.  Nature vs. machine.


Prose/Style: 3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Jonathan Swift, but not really.  Eat the young?  Maybe. Probably – especially the boys, if they’re high.  To get high.  Brilliant in a way, subtle.  Subtle but over the top – possibilities previously impossible, unexplored.  “Good Grief, Charlie Brown.”  Masterful like Stein – obnoxious like Stein.  Henry Miller.  Love child. Cut-up experimentation, finished.  Culmination of phase, of trilogy, of mathematical series (four).  Onward to reality (which is what, exactly?).


Additional Elements: 3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Control elements:  Government, Society, Culture.  Language is virus.  Language is power.  To catch the virus – to get sick – to make noise.  To be vocal, is power.  Is wrong and right.  Right is might.  Speak out against Control Elements.  Law powers create criminals to justify existence of Law powers.  Good creates bad to create good.  To be in control.  Addiction, dependence.  Junkies.  Criminals are the powerful ones – only if infected.  Infected with speech.  What is human?  Who defines humanity?  Addicts, homosexuals, criminals – disappear for utopia?  Not really.  Make more for Utopia? Not really.  Break down the walls – with voice – break down the walls to win.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Drugs, Privacy (Invasion of), Sexuality, Cut-Up Prose, Postmodernism, Beats, Culture

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Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

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Essay, Fiction, Humor, Mark Twain, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Politics, Religion, Satire, Short Story, Sociology

Review: Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

Who is Mark Twain? By Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 14

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impacful

Who is Mark Twain? is a collection of short stories, essays and letters, published posthumously by Twain’s editors.  It encompasses a wide range of political, social, and educational ideals, as well as some insight into Twain’s personal and family life, as well as funny anecdotes about his journey from San Francisco nobody to over-night sensation.  As usual, I connected strongly with Twain’s pieces – I tend to be aligned well with his philosophical points of view (when he praises the U.S. Journalists for being irreverent, except where actual reverence is due, as opposed to foreign presses which pay reverence to pretty much everything, I about shouted with joy), but I did disagree with him in one respect: he completely bashes Jane Austen, in the short essay “Jane Austen.”  Now, I had heard that Twain wasn’t a fan, and it’s not hard to imagine why – when you compare Twain’s world and work to Austen’s, it’s almost polar-opposite – almost.  Twain touches on Austen’s satire and parody, but only briefly – and in a way which indicates that Twain didn’t think Austen really knew what she was doing, and her later critics made it appear as if she was being satirical when, in fact, she really believed what she was writing.  Now, I don’t know how far Twain went to familiarize himself with Austen’s works or personal writings – he mentions two books, which he tried to read repeatedly, but couldn’t get into. That’s fine and dandy, but I do think Twain was off on this one, because Jane Austen was a brilliant comedienne who, I believe, truly knew what she was doing and saying.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

This section really only applies to those works of short fiction in this collection – the essays and letters due have characters, because Twain tends to respond to everything with a story.  Still, his characters really shine in stories like “A Group of Servants,” “The Undertaker’s Tale,” and “The Snow-Shovelers” (which was also a brilliant statement on politics and ethics hypocrisy).   Some of the strongest characterization, in my opinion, is found in two stories whose main characters are animals: “The Jungle Discusses Man” and “Telegraph Dog.”  Here, Twain uses animals in human situations to discuss human nature – which was fascinating (and the first, “Jungle” reminded me of a twisted retelling or foreshadowing of The Lion King, actually). 

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Twain’s prose is fluid and easy to follow.  Whether he is writing a fictional story, a letter to an editor, or a biographical letter to a friend, his language is effortless and his ability with puns and world-play is uncontested (the only class of writers I can compare him to are Shakespeare, Swift, and Vonnegut).  I adore the satirists, but they have to be brilliant if they are going to get it right, and Twain definitely gets it right (most of the time).  Reading his pieces is like conversing with a charming old friend, who just wants to catch up after the years, chat about how things have been going, and tell you how completely wrong you are about everything, but all the while offering you candy and cigarettes, fluffing your pillow and refilling your drink.  He cares deeply about people, and he cares about giving the proper kind of respect to the people who have earned it.  All of this, the sentiment of his convictions and virtues, comes across in the tone of the language, and through the undercurrent of the words – the actual words often saying the opposite of what Twain really means. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I enjoy so much about Twain is the way he tackles difficult issues, be they politics, religion, education, or social ideals, boldly and confidently, but with a reassuring and refreshing sense of whimsy and fun, as if to say “there’s no reason to be bothered about any of this, really.”  He is serious, but calm – he can put the “smack down” on anybody he finds in the wrong, and he does in quite a few instances in this collection, but one gets the feeling that Twain finds all arguing in general, rather silly – he just wants to live a good life, and to encourage that in others, and he gets most dangerous and powerful when he is writing against any attack on people’s rights to happiness and well-being.  He pokes-fun at people in a brilliantly endearing way, but he does the same to himself, which makes the reader comfortable in knowing that, at the very least, Twain is a man who can take an honest look at himself and criticize where critique is due. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School and above

Interest: Satire, Non-Fiction, Memoir, Auto-biography, Short Story, Politics, History

Notable Quotes:

“I asked the British Government to tell me what head I came under.  . . . Now you will never believe it, but I give you my honor that this – this, which you see before you- was actually taxed as a Gas Works.”  – Twain discussing taxes imposed upon his published fiction in England, before copyright laws.

“It seemed to sort of recognize me as one of the Friendly Powers – not on a large scale, of course – not like Russia and China and those, but on a – well, on a secondary scale – New Jersey.”

 

 

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Ancient Roman, Book Review, Classical Roman, Classics, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge, Historical Fiction, Mythology, Petronius, Satire

Review: The Satyricon by Petronius

The Satyricon by Petronius
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD:  58

Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Okay, this is not your grandfather’s classical Roman literature, unless your grandfather was a horny old homosexual (well, perhaps bisexual or pansexual), with a particular penchant for teenage boys and/or eunuchs.  That being said, Petronius’s satirical version of classical Roman life is a breath of hilariously fresh air!  The work was written in the 1st C A.D., and it gives a brilliant and incomparable first-hand look into the life of the lower and middle-classes at this time.  It seems to me to be both a general satire of politics and society at the time, as well as a chastisement of Emperor Nero, for having exiled the great tragedian, Seneca (source inspiration for Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others). The translation, too, brings the old Latin work into clear focus, allowing any contemporary reader relatively easy access.  Petronius gives us much of what we would expect to find in a work inspired by Homer, Cicero, and the gang – two or three rag-tag characters, humbled by the gods, set off on ridiculous quests and challenges, all the while trying to prove themselves, find love (or at least fulfill their desires), and indulge in great food and lots of alcohol.  The major differences, though, are that the story line obviously pokes fun at the brilliant nature of the epic hymns, and the impossible feats those ancient heroes accomplished.  And, rather than our “hero” risking his life to champion and woo a Danae or Venus, he fights tooth and nail for the attention and protection of his 16 year old male lover.  Throw in lots of hilarious poetry, some great mythological tales (“fictional” and historical), and a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the rich and powerful, and we have one entertaining and oddly romantic story on our hands.  

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The main characters, Encolpius (narrator), Giton (his young lover), and Eumolpus are all interesting in their own way, though a bit flat.  Encolpius, as the narrator, has more development than the rest, and his interactions with Giton, Ascyltus, Circe, Tryphaena, and Lichas (some of the cast of minor characters – all of whom are love-interests of/for Encolpius) are interesting and fun to witness.  As much of this work has been lost (only portions are extant – and they have been combined here into broken novella form), the characters do not get as much history or development as I think they originally had in the full work, which is assumed to have been approximately 500-1000 pages long.  Still, the glimpses that we get of these characters in action is enough to entertain and to allow the reader to engage with their story without being bored or distracted by all of the missing breaks  – in fact, the situations and interactions are so interesting, that I found myself angry to have been stopped mid-scene by missing segments!

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The mixture of prose (this is probably the first extant example of the current form of the “novel” in Western literature) with song and poetry creates a wonderful reading experience, particularly as it was done so well.  Reading an ancient tale in novel form makes the story much more accessible for the modern reader, but the style and the many hints at ancient poetry and song/story-telling allow the reader to sink back into the time period too.  Also, there is one lengthy poem called “The Civil War” (about 12 pages long) which reminds the reader of the time period and the tradition of verbal story-telling.  It was just enough, for me, to enjoy the epic narrative without feeling overwhelmed (as with most of the works which inspired this one) by verse.

Additional Elements:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What makes this novel so great is really a combination of elements: 1st) that it is an ancient text written in prose, rather than verse, and in a way which, ultimately would become the “standard” for novelization in Western literature; 2nd) the honest account of social interaction and sexuality in this time period, most of which has been lost to history; 3rd) the genius satire, executed in a way that is both funny and somehow serious.  Petronius obviously has a bone to pick with the political powers that be, and with the moral justices – he seems disturbed by those who are “in charge” and by the way they enact their trials and verdicts. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult
Interest: Classical Roman, Classical Greek, Ancient History, Alternative Roman, GLBT, Gay Classics, Satire, Mythology

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing is falser than people’s preconceptions and ready-made opinions; nothing is sillier than their sham morality.” (P. 152)

“I loathe the vulgar crowd, and shun it.” (P. 128)

“What good are the laws where Money is king, / where the poor are always wrong, / and even the mockers who scoff at the times / will sell the truth for a song? / The courts are an auction where justice is sold; / the judge who presides bangs a gavel of gold.” (P. 29) 


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