[Audio] The Gods of Olympus

This is an audio recording by Brandon Monk.

In this episode we run through and give a brief overview of the 12 gods/goddesses of Olympus:

  • Why are they called Olympian gods?
  • Who are the 12 by name?
  • A brief history of Zeus’ battles.
  • What are the 12 twelve gods and goddesses of Mt. Olympus known for?

Resources for a Lifetime of Learning

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Do you remember those first few weeks of school when you came back with new supplies and endless energy and resolutions to do things right this year? Surely, I’m not alone here. I haven’t quite experienced anything like it since I became an adult. Don’t get me wrong, I do get excited about new books or a new notebook, but my level of enthusiasm just isn’t the same now as it was when I was a kid. Maybe that’s because I pay for it now. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.

The good news: I can see the school buses lining up. Kids are at Target buying back to school supplies. We can be young again.

As school either starts or gets ready to start it’s a good opportunity for all of us to reflect, reevaluate, and recommit to learning.

You can set an example for those watchful kid eyes, those impressionable young minds. Learning isn’t about showing up and being fed information. It’s also about curiosity, creation, and about finding something each day that lets you say you’ve grown.

Here, are some resources where you can learn anything. I can’t take credit for this list which is why I link to the source, but I would recommend you bookmark it and return frequently.

Below are a few I have personal experience with:

The Khan Academy — perfect for tutoring on math and science subjects.
LibriVox Audio Books — free access to classic works in audiobook form.
Project Gutenberg —  free access to the same books, and more, in print form.
BBC Language —  a free way to learn a foreign language.
TED Talks —  full of new ideas, sources of motivation, and new ways to look at old problems.
Justin Guitar — free guitar lessons online.

Fiction to Break Down Social Barriers

This is an essay by K. E. Argonza.

We cannot walk a mile in each other’s shoes.

A white man from Switzerland will never fully comprehend what it is to be a child soldier in Uganda, nor will a housewife and mother of three in Iowa ever understand being a Navy Seal. An artist in Austin, Texas will not know what a Red Cross doctor in Kabul feels like as he fits another casualty of war with a set of artificial legs.

I will never fully know what it’s like to be you and you will never know what it is like to be me.

We are trapped in the bodies we were born with and limited by a certain set of experiences that are available to us. From the moment we open our eyes, we begin to recognize facial features and from that moment on, we begin to discriminate. We grow older; we try to find our self-worth and our purpose in this complicated existence.

We search for social validation, which often comes in the form of seeking and supporting those who are like us, sometimes to the exclusion of those who are dissimilar.

In that search for our own identity and our place in this life, we seek to draw a circle around ourselves; a barrier that protects us from that which we find threatening, odd or challenging. Through our ignorance and lack of interaction, we make assumptions and stereotypes about others and create distance between our cliques.

That is where most of us make our great error. In living in this protective wall we close ourselves from the rest of the world and, like a fort under siege, the soul we seek to protect begins to starve and, eventually, dies.  Without external input, we stifle our lives.

Nourishment can come in a myriad of ways and it can begin in the closest thing we have to Telepathy: Reading.

Every word that I place on a page opens up my thoughts to you. The more you read what I write, the more you can understand what goes through my head. Should I ever write an autobiography, then you will surely know more about me than you could ever ascertain from simply looking at, or even talking to, me. A good writer can make you see things through their eyes and can inadvertently break down social barriers.

Who we are, what we look like, our talents and our location dictate much of our experiences. We are born with these things placed upon us. The moment we begin to discriminate between ourselves, and those different from us, our soul starts to shrink.

Fiction can help regenerate what we lose the second we understand what sets us apart.

A Palestinian might read a story about a Jew. An American Soldier might read a story about an Afghan Arbakai (Militiaman). A progressive urbanite might read a story about a cowboy.

When it comes to perusing for things to read, we often search for things that we can relate to. Look at blogs and see how they exist in niches and clustered communities. We look for those who mirror us because it is easier to understand. It does not challenge our values or our schema. It keeps us in a box where we feel comfortable. If we do not look for things that reflect us, we might look for things that we covet or aspire to, but still, it is often within a certain cultural sphere.

In my opinion, this is where we do ourselves a great disservice.

I am, of course, not implying that we cannot hold to our own values. I do not ask a devout Christian to read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and convert to Buddhism. I merely challenge a reader to seek the stories that are unlike the ones he or she is ever to experience and in so doing, challenging their existential hypothesis. It can serve to reinforce or support what we think, or it can disprove it and show us where we have faltered.

Stories give us a narrative that makes these differences easier to digest.

Our eyes might discriminate but sensual descriptions unify. In the cold we get goose bumps, in the heat we sweat, and we can all marvel at a setting sun. A well-told story, a great work of fiction, has the ability to connect us because certain desires and experiences are universal. From that vantage point, we allow characters to explain themselves in a way that we would not allow in real life interaction.

I challenge anyone to read books about people and places that are different from anything they have ever known. I challenge you to find a perspective unlike your own and cognitively try to defend it, even if you do not agree with it.

In a world that is shrinking, we seem to have culturally (and politically) become more divided. As the world becomes interconnected, shouldn’t people seek connection as well?

Tell me, what was the last thing you read that truly challenged your perspective? What punched a hole in the bulwark of your social limitations?

========

K. E. Argonza has lived in four countries, was once fluent in three languages and has an annoying inability to stay in one place. This addle-minded millennial beat writer is an Afghanistan veteran, blogger at ShoesNeverWorn.com and can be followed on twitter @KEArgonza.

Beowulf: A Long-Lasting Cultural Critique

This is an essay by Amarie Fox.

‘How can you read all of those boring books?’

When I decide to forego lying and actually admit to people that I study literature – and not medicine, like my entire family would prefer – I am often met with various looks of utter bewilderment or even the ever famous eye roll. Both are overtly condescending, but even more than that they reek of pity and disgust. How will you find a career? Why don’t you just throw money away? Not wanting to enter into a maze of questions, I answer that I don’t really know and leave it at that.

Sadly, modern society does not treasure the cultivated mind. Somehow we have forgotten that the canon is not just a massive collection of “good” or entertaining literature, but also a valuable tool that has the ability to change how we think, even about our own society. Maybe it comes across as a threatening prospect to have a nation or world full of conscious, critical people. I don’t know and I won’t claim to. All I do know for certain is that the cliché ‘a good book can change your life,’ is true. It sounds drastic, sure, but when you change the way you think you are actively changing your life at the same time. The two are synonymous.

Through the years, the one piece of literature that I return to, time and time again, and am happy to admit changed my life is Beowulf. I will preface this with the disclaimer that I understand the unwillingness to bother with older and more ‘ancient’ texts. When I was originally forced to read the epic in high school, I absolutely despised it. At the time, I did not feel that anything written so long ago could possibly have anything to do my melodramatic teenage experience. I may have even blurted out, “I hate this poem!” in front of my English teacher. However, I will neither confirm nor deny that. I’ll just say that when we finished discussing it I let out the biggest and loudest sigh of relief anyone has ever heard. (Even now, putting that down in words, I find myself blushing in embarrassment. Oh, the youthful disregard for anything considered good or essential literature!) At fifteen, though, I do not think I was prepared to be a dedicated reader. Being a dedicated reader is something one grows, ever so slowly, into.

Foundations

It was only when I enrolled in a Medieval Literature class at my university that I was willing to give Beowulf another shot. With some helpful background information, which I had previously missed out on, I was able to better grasp the message. As much as I would love to deny that one does not need any knowledge of history when it comes to reading, I can’t honestly do that. A little historical perspective goes a long way, especially when it comes to enriching the overall experience. Modern literature usually does not present this problem, but if one is an open reader, willing to devour anything, the problem is bound to crop up.

The Beowulf manuscript is dated around 1000 AD, but goes back at least five hundred or so years in the oral tradition. Around this time, the Germanic tribes were conquering Celtic Britain. These familial tribes had a few very important values, which they structured their lives around. Loyalty to blood kin was first and foremost, followed by loyalty to the cyning (the king), martial valor or courage in battle, and generosity (of the spoils of war). Omitting this information, especially when teaching or discussing the text seriously, I feel, is only doing a great disservice to the reader. After all, to understand the motivations of a particular character one must be able to identify their principles and what they stand for.

Descendants of Cain?

In my college level class, the professor began the lecture by asking what we imagined Grendel looked like. Someone instantly blurted out, as if the answer should have been obvious, “Well, it is a monster isn’t it?”

To be fair, Grendel and his mother are both described as monstrous beings. However, on two separate occasions they are also identified as descendants of Cain. With this in mind, they absolutely have to be understood as humans, though grotesquely deformed, because otherwise the underlying thematic concern  does not fit or make sense. What would their punishment of alienation matter if they were monsters? Monsters do not abide by our rules; they are not a part of human society.

What is usually downplayed is that Grendel and his mother are devourers of their own kind, humankind, who share the same set of cannibalistic and self-destructive set of values of their enemies and hunters. Just as the Danes wish to get revenge for the deaths at Herot, so too does Grendel’s mother for her son. Both are equally justified and right, according to their rules. The image then becomes clear: aren’t those who share the same exact set of standards and still attack one another displaying some form of cannibalistic tendency? The narrator implements each of these episodes toward this larger purpose, namely to critique his own community’s system of values from the inside.

By the end of the poem, the narrator brings up the main concern of the difficulty of ending inter-tribal warfare, when he references the Swedes and the Frisians. They reinforce the somber mood that the cyclical nature of blood revenge is bound to bring about. There is no escaping the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality, for it is not exactly easy to stomp out the endless chain of killing. Beowulf, as he dies, knows this and so do the Geatish people. Once their protector is dead and gone all of their old enemies are bound to come seeking vengeance for old, but not forgotten, feuds. I’d also like to think the narrator knew what was to come – that the Vikings, long-lost cousins to the early Germanics, would arrive a couple hundred years later, with the very same values, to repeat history.

Lessons Lost

What frustrates me the most, I suppose, is that I feel we are being cheated in some way. Not necessarily by our early educational systems, but by mainstream culture, as well. We live in a time when many come into contact with books through Hollywood adaptations. However, an adaptation is just that: an immensely edited down version.

Upon leaving the Beowulf lecture, I overhead some students discussing the film that had been released a while ago. Many had no clue that the poem was much more than a handsome hero hunting down two evil reptilian creatures. Having never seen the movie, I cannot comment on the content. Still, ‘reptilian’ was all I needed to hear to know that Hollywood missed the point entirely.

It saddens me to think that there is a “dumbing” or watering down of culture. Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, writes about how it should be altruistic, meant for everyone. For him, it never teaches ‘down’ to anyone. In fact, the imagined goal is for humankind to carry from one end of society to the other “the best that has ever been thought and known in the world.” This is a theory I have always stood behind, because without it the true importance of all literature is ultimately in danger of being lost.

Beowulf did change my life, if only because it changed the way I began to think about writing in relation to the world. Is modern society drastically different? Have we all really progressed past the blood kin killings? Isn’t the modern man with his violence and hatred doing just the same in the city street? I suppose we do keep on repeating history and so the message is still as pertinent and applicable. The fifteen year old version of me may have been self-absorbed and unseeing, but now that I am older, I see that the experience voiced in the poem is a very human one. It encompasses every single person, not just a select sect or group. It just takes a little bit of work to see.

These days, whenever I sit down to begin a writing project, I always recall the truly heroic man who stood up and questioned the world around him. People might not ever approve of my choices and that might weigh heavily on my spirit sometimes, but one cannot expect to always be understood. All one can do is take what inspires them and keep working, keep commenting on the world, and keep moving down the road.

———-

Amarie Fox is a writer (and sometimes mediocre artist) who is infatuated with a Mr. John Milton. She dreams of time travel back to seventeenth century England quite often, but in the meantime is content with her small bedroom, garden, and many animals (five dogs and four cats, in all). She created a writing blog called Sorrow & Lust and receives digital mail at amariefox.letterbox@gmail.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Allan Brisbane.

[Audio] Greek Creation Myths

In this episode we discuss Greek creation myths:

  • Introduce the concept of a creation myth.
  • Chaos came first.
  • Next game Gaia.
  • We look at two sacred unions between Earth and Sky.
  • We cover the Titans and Cronus in particular.
  • Aphrodite’s birth.
  • Zeus’ birth.
  • The cultural significance of these myths

This episode will be accessible through iTunes as well. Click on the icon on the sidebar to your right to subscribe or download this episode.

The Gender Divide and Becoming More Aware of What We Read

This is an essay by Joseph Dante.

We all have particular tastes when it comes to our reading habits. I have my own preferences: I tend to go for things that are more “literary” than “genre,” except for maybe when a friend (who knows something about what I like) makes an interesting suggestion. I tend to read the books that are considered classics and often pop up in English classes as required reading. I also like things that tend to be difficult to categorize, are fresh and colorful, and that break or mix elements of disparate genres. Unfortunately, if you read what I read, chances are you probably don’t encounter nearly enough female authors simply because of how often history (and hence, publishers and the literary establishment) has often overlooked them. There have been plenty of women who were forced to take on male pseudonyms just in order to be taken as seriously as their peers.

I remember once coming across a book blog by a male reader who admitted he doesn’t read female authors. He tried to pass it off as just a coincidence. He typically reads the classics—both old and contemporary, the who’s who. It’s not because he’s only interested in men’s writing specifically, just that these books happen to tackle the bigger, more universal themes (according to him) and he doesn’t see that as any kind of problem.

But it is a problem. The year is 2012, and we know there are plenty of women out there writing important books. You would think things may have changed over the years, but just take a glance at these statistics by VIDA. The gender breakdown of some of these respected literary journals is quite alarming. It is even more alarming when you realize that these people are the gatekeepers and curators who still continue to highlight what’s important in literature today, who are often a contributing factor in determining which writers go on to receive all the recognition and awards. There have been several responses from readers and publishers to address this issue. In an excellent essay at The Rumpus, writer and editor Roxane Gay believes one of the easiest and most obvious solutions is to simply read and publish more women writers. She believes readers need to become more consciously aware of this problem and publishers need to try to level out the playing field if their publications appear to be uneven. Ever since I came across these statistics, I’ve tried my best to take her advice. I’ve tried to be more vigilant about my own reading patterns and the patterns of others.

For Ms. Gay, the issue is also a personal one. She falls into the category of “women writer” who writes “women’s fiction,” and she is also a reader who often comes across excellent writing by female authors. Despite not being a female writer myself (whose writing would be affected by this), it’s personal for me on a certain level as well. Ever since I was really young, all the most influential figures in my life have been women: my mother and my sister and Nana, my closest friends, and (perhaps the most relevant) my favorite teachers and literature professors. To continue to see so many talented female writers go overlooked (being simply a writer and reader who appreciates it) makes it doubly personal. It’s an issue I keep coming back to and it’s something I’d really like to see change sooner rather than later.

The other night, I went out to dinner with Nana. We got to talking about books (she and my aunt are starting to become more avid readers, I’m happy to report) and I got to talking about this. “Well, maybe it’s simply because men are just better writers,” she said. I laughed and told her no, that wasn’t the case. There is an abundance of excellent women writers out there—it’s just that they’re being ignored or not taken nearly as seriously. It’s just that society has a special preference for male writers and seeing their problems as more important and universal (while female writing is considered as more trivial, despite being half the population). I have to remind myself that Nana is from a different generation, where someone can make a comment like that and have it go unnoticed.

I do think things are changing in the publishing landscape, but slowly. While dusty, reputable journals like The New Yorker may continue to have this problem for a while, newer journals seem to be much more inclusive, I’ve noticed. I’ve tried to help out with all this in my own little way by actively seeking out books by female authors and talking about them as much as possible.

Here are a few great books I’ve read this year so far:

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, which I reviewed for Paste

The Complete Plays by Sarah Kane

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton

And books I plan on reading in the near future:

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel

NW by Zadie Smith

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Which women writers have you been reading?

———

Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida. He runs a blog at josephdante.com, and is currently a reader for online literary magazine Hobart. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.

Photo: Some rights reserved by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives.

Going on vacation? Don’t pack any books!

This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.

It’s the summer, and everyone from The Guardian to Oprah is recommending books to take on vacation with you.

But I’d like to make a different recommendation. Don’t take any books with you; bring some back instead.

To me, a vacation is a wonderful chance to discover new things, to break out of ruts and to enjoy a real sense of change and renewal. Yet when it comes to reading, many people pack their suitcase full of the same sort of books they’ve been reading the other 50 weeks of the year. It seems a shame.

Think local, read local

My approach is to pack no books at all, and instead to buy all my holiday reading from a local bookshop when I arrive. For me, an important part of travelling is coming to understand the culture of the place I’m visiting, and there’s no better way to do that than by reading books by local writers. I realise that people take holidays for different reasons, of course, and some people simply want to relax on their two weeks off. But nobody said the books have to be serious. Even if you just want a comforting beach read, why not choose one by a local writer?

Books make great souvenirs.

I’ve never been much of a fan of buying plates, ashtrays and other nicknacks with a country’s name emblazoned across them, but I do like to remember the places I’ve visited. Buying books is a solution that works for me – I have a whole collection on my shelves from ten years of travelling, and a mere glance at the spine is enough to bring back happy memories. There’s the beautiful leather-bound copy of the Koran, with Arabic lettering on one page and the English translation opposite, that I bought in a small town in southern Tunisia; there’s the Anne Rice novel I spooked myself with while staying in an eery, crumbling old mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans back in 2002; or how about Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, bought in the heart of the city it describes?

There is no language barrier

That Pamuk book was a translation, bought from an English-language bookshop. It’s amazing to me how many places in the world sell books in English, either in specialised English-language bookstores or simply in sections of regular stores. If you’re lucky enough to be an English speaker, then language really is no barrier. I recently challenged myself by buying a book in French – more on that later – but the ready availability of translations means that, unless you’re travelling to a very out-of-the-way place, you’ll be able to find something in English.

On the other hand, if you’re not travelling abroad this year, you can still buy locally. In fact, many of the books on my souvenir shelf are from the years when I lived in New York and most of my trips were exploring within the United States. I loved buying books by local writers wherever I went, like the Anne Rice book in New Orleans, which was the type of thing I’d never normally read. I also discovered some wonderful independent bookstores up and down the country, my favourite being the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, a place I could easily have spent my whole vacation in, if the call of the Rockies hadn’t been so strong.

What I brought back this year

I just got back from a little tour of four Caribbean islands: St Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. It was a busy trip, and I was staying in people’s homes so there was not much time for reading: after a day of sightseeing, I spent the evening chatting with my hosts. So I only bought one book in each country, and still didn’t get through all of them. Here’s my haul, anyway.

In St Lucia, the most famous writer is Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, but I’m already familiar with his work so decided to try out something different. I met the poet Kendel Hippolyte at a literary festival and liked his work, and bizarrely I ran into him again randomly on a street in St Lucia during my visit, so took that as a sign, and bought his poetry collection Birthright.

I went from poetry to theory in Martinique, picking up a copy of Caribbean Discourse, a collection of essays by the celebrated poet and critic Edouard Glissant.

Guadeloupe was where I took the plunge and bought a book in French: Maryse Condé’s Le coeur à rire et à pleurer – Souvenirs de mon enfance. I used to read French quite well, but it’s been a very long time, and this is a real challenge for me. I’m going slowly, but so much of the language is coming back to me. I’m on page 4 so far.

Dominica is best known in the literary world for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, but I already had a copy so, again, decided to look further afield. I came across Ma Williams and her Circle of Friends by Giftus John, a nostalgic story about old village life.

I’m enjoying my purchases, and they’ll make great reminders of a really special trip. Better than a souvenir plate any day!

Where are you going on vacation this summer? What do you plan to read?

———-

Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.