The History of Literature #147 – Leo Tolstoy

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When asked to name the three greatest novels ever written, William Faulkner replied, “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.” Nabokov said, “When you are reading Turgenev, you know you are reading Turgenev. When you read Tolstoy, you are reading because you just cannot stop.”  And finally, there’s this compliment from author Isaac Babel: “If the world could write itself,” he said, “it would write like Tolstoy.”

But who was Leo Tolstoy? How did he become the person who could write War and Peace and Anna Karenina, two of the pinnacles of the novel form – and two of the greatest achievements in the history of human civilization? Why did he stop writing novels, and what did he do with the rest of his life?

In this episode, host Jacke Wilson takes a look at the life and works of Count Leo Tolstoy, one of the most fascinating and revered figures in all of literature.

Links and Other Treats:

More of a Chekhov person? You might like Episode 63, where author Charles Baxter talks about how important Chekhov has been to him.

For a look at Anna Karenina’s “French cousin,” check out Episode 79 – Music That Melts the Stars – Madame Bovary.

Love the Russians? Listen to more in Episode 130 on the great poet Anna Akhmatova and her surprising affair with sculptor Amedeo Modigliani.

Why did Tolstoy hate Shakespeare? Learn more in Episode 104 – King Lear.

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature. Find out more at historyofliterature.com, jackewilson.com, or by following Jacke and Mike on Twitter at @thejackewilson and @literatureSC.

FREE GIFTS! The gift-giving continues! This month, we’re giving away a copy of Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature and an Amazon.com gift certificate for the book of your choice. Sign up at patreon.com/literature to be eligible to win. Good luck!

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The History of Literature #146 – Power Ranking the Nobel Prize for Literature

The Nobel Prize for Literature has a special place in the literary landscape. We revere the prize and its winners – and yet we often find ourselves puzzled by the choices. The list of fantastic writers who never won a Nobel Prize is as long and distinguished as the list of those who did.

In this episode, Jacke and Mike take a look at the Nobel Prizes by decade, attempting to determine which decade had the best (and worst) group of authors. Do we select your favorites? Overlook some hidden gems? Let us know!

For a list of Nobel Prize Winners for Literature by Decade, visit historyofliterature.com/nobel-prizes-by-decade/

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature. Find out more at historyofliterature.com, jackewilson.com, or by following Jacke and Mike on Twitter at @thejackewilson and @literatureSC.

144 Food in Literature

Food, glorious food! We all know its power for nourishment, pleasure, and comfort — and we’ve all felt the sharp pangs of its absence. How has this essential part of being alive made its way into novels, short stories, and poetry? Our guest Ronica Dhar, author of the novel Bijou Roy, joins us for a conversation about food in literature, as we select ten mouthwatering (and thought-provoking) examples. Bon appetit!

Works and authors discussed include Kevin Young, Dr. Seuss, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, Beatrix Potter, Patrick O’Brian, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Beowulf, Elizabeth Alexander, Big Night (the film), Charles Dickens, Arnold Lobel, Russell Hoban, Lillian Hoban, Haruki Murakami, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Paddington Bear, Pippi Longstocking, and more.

For our first discussion with Ronica, in which she chooses her favorite books, see Episode 35 – A Conversation with Ronica Dhar.

What’s food without the means to buy it? For a draft of 10 great writers at work, see Episode 101 – Writers at Work (with Mike Palindrome).

For more on Patrick O’Brian, see Episode 37 – Great Literary Duos.

For a medieval feast, see Episode 108 – Beowulf (aka Need a Hero? Get a Grip!).

EXCITING NEWS!!!!

We are giving away a FREE History of Literature Podcast mug and a FREE copy of Ronica Dhar’s book, Bijou Roy, to two lucky Patreon donors! Sign up now at patreon.com/literature to be eligible for this special bonus offer.

If you’d like to purchase a mug instead, or just donate a fiver or two to the show, you can find out how at historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or on Twitter @thejackewilson.

The History of Literature #143 – A Soldier’s Heart – Teaching Literature at the U.S. Military Academy (with Professor Elizabeth Samet)

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Since ancient times, societies have used rousing lines of poetry to inspire soldiers to acts of heroism, courage, and sacrifice. But what about literature that expresses doubts about war? Or fear? Or that conveys its brutal nature? Should those works be a part of the curriculum as well?

And what about literature that, on its surface, has nothing to do with the battlefield? Where is the value in that for a soldier?

One thing seems clear: how a society educates its soldiers tells us something fundamental about the values of that society. And when it comes to the role of literature in a soldier’s education, we can learn two things. We see how we as a society think of the men and women fighting for us. And we see a reflection of what we think literature can and should do.

In this episode, we’re joined by author Elizabeth Samet, a professor of literature at the United States Military Academy (West Point). Professor Samet’s book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, was a New York Times Book ReviewEditors’ Choice, A USA Today Best Book, and A Christian Science Monitor Best Book.

Works and authors discussed include the Shahnameh, Elizabeth Bishop, Great Expectations, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, and others.

We took a look at Homer and his famous tale of the siege of Troy way back in Episode 3 – Homer.

For Shakespearean soldiers, try Episode 70 – Julius Caesar or Episode 80 – Power Play! Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For an episode on the dialogue between the reluctant warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who dramatically reveals himself as the incarnation of God, try Episode 33 – The Bhagavad Gita.

For more about poetry in the context of war, try a pair of episodes with Professor Bill Hogan: Episode 56 – The Poetry of Ruins and Episode 93 – Robert Frost Finds a Friend

For the story of an American writer who went off to World War II and came back a changed man, try Episode 141 – Kurt Vonnegut (with Mike Palindrome).

For a look at the politics of war and peace, try Episode 117 – Machiavelli and The Prince.

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or on Twitter @thejackewilson.

The History of Literature #141 – Kurt Vonnegut (with Mike Palindrome)

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“The year was 2081,” the story begins, “and everyone was finally equal.” In this episode of the History of Literature, Jacke and Mike take a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” In this 1961 story, Vonnegut imagines a world of the perfectly average, where no one is allowed to be too great – until a hero named Harrison Bergeron comes along. Along the way, we discuss Vonnegut’s life and works, what we think the story means, and Mike’s own attempt to limit himself in order to better function in society. SPOILER ALERT: THERE ARE NO SPOILERS! This episode is completely self-contained. We read the short story, so there’s no need to run out and read it on your own first (unless you want to).

For another self-contained episode on a classic twentieth-century short story, try Episode 139 – “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka.

For more about short stories in general, try Episode 57 – Borges, Munro, Davis, Barthelme – All About Short Stories (and Long Ones Too).

Kurt Vonnegut makes a cameo appearance in Episode 101 Writers at Work (you’ll never guess his surprising avocation).

And for another high school favorite, try Episode 119 – The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.

Help support the show at patreon.com/literatureor historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or via our new Twitter handle, @thejackewilson.

History of Literature #139 – “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka

In 1922, the miserable genius Franz Kafka wrote a short story, Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist), about another miserable genius: a man whose “art” is to live in a cage and display his fasting ability to crowds that don’t always appreciate what he is trying to do. Inspired by actual historical figures, though suffused with nostalgia and Kafka’s penetrating insight, the story asks us to reconsider our conceptions of art and spectacle, life and death, hunger and humanity. Host Jacke Wilson is joined by superguest Mike Palindrome, President of the Literature Supporters Club, to feast on one of the greatest short stories ever written.

For more on Franz Kafka, try Episode 134 – The Greatest Night of Franz Kafka’s Life

For more on short stories, try Episode 57 – Borges, Munro, Davis, Barthelme – All About Short Stories (And Long Ones Too)

For a deep dive into Alice Munro’s “A Bear Came Over the Mountain,” try Episode 115 – The Genius of Alice Munro

For a deep dive into Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” try Episode 110 – Heart of Darkness – Then and Now

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or via our new Twitter handle, @thejackewilson.

History of Literature Episode #138 – Why Poetry (with Matthew Zapruder)

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In his new book Why Poetry, the poet Matthew Zapruder has issued “an impassioned call for a return to reading poetry and an incisive argument for its accessibility to all readers.” The poet Robert Hass says, “Zapruder on poetry is pure pleasure. His prose is so direct that you have the impression, sentence by sentence, that you are being told simple things about a simple subject and by the end of each essay you come to understand that you’ve been on a very rich, very subtle tour of what’s aesthetically and psychologically amazing about the art of poetry.”

In this episode, Matthew Zapruder joins Jacke for a discussion on why poetry is often misunderstood, and how readers can clear away the misconceptions and return to an appreciation for the charms and power of poetry. Along the way, they discuss poems by W.H. Auden, Brenda Hillman, and John Keats, and the views of critics like Harold Bloom, Giambattista Vico, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Paul Valery.

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or via our new Twitter handle, @thejackewilson.