May 24 - Troy seems to be doing very well at the box office. If you haven't yet seen it, though, you might want to brush up beforehand on Homer's epic tale of Achilles' wrath. Or if you have seen it, maybe you'd like a quick and light refresher on the original Iliad. What I'm trying to say is, Greg Nagan's "The 5-Minute Iliad" (Simon Schuster, 2000) is now more important than ever, if only because American pop culture is a lot more interested in Homer now that Achilles is finally being played by Brad Pitt.

Achilles was played by Jack Nicholson in my original "Six-Minute Iliad," as performed by Garrison Keillor and company on A Prairie Home Companion back in 1996. (RealAudio version; text version.)

If you've already bought a copy of my book, thank you. If you haven't, now's the time. (Seriously. I've got a new book to shop around this summer, so every last sale counts.) When you hear people talking about Troy, be sure to tell them about that hilarious parody that they'll enjoy so much more now that the story is fresh in their minds.

(Incidentally, you might also want to remind them that this critically-acclaimed, utterly ridiculous book also includes a condensation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, in which the character Van Helsing was first introduced to the world.)

Or don't. You know... Just a suggestion.

Troy and Van Helsing are two of the top three box-office hits in the states right now. If you want to sound really smart about both of them, but don't have time to read the thousand pages of text they represent between them, then by all means read this book. If you don't give a damn about movies, read this book. If you're illiterate. . . heh heh, you're ugly!

But come on—not many books about the literary heritage of western civilization receive favorable comparisons to Monty Python and Spinal Tap.

Still not convinced? Hey, free samples:

From The Iliad:

Early the next day, once rosy-fingered Dawn arose,
how it heartened the embattled Argives
to see Achilles' men join them in the fray!
With great gladness now they poured forth,
and beat the Trojans back, and chopped them into little pieces,
little bitty pieces, that made nasty squishy noises when you stepped on them,
so you tried not to step on them, only you couldn't help it,
they were everywhere, little julienned strips of Trojans,
an eyeball here, a kneecap there, clumps of hair and gristle,
floppy flaps of flesh, and splintered bone, and pools of blood.
And at the head of the Argive ranks, brave Patroclus!
Achilles' friend Patroclus! Patroclus whom Achilles loved—
not like that, not really, although, yeah, they'd experimented in puberty,
but neither of them really liked it, and it was just part of growing up,
those feelings were perfectly natural, all part of being human—
Patroclus was killing Trojans left and right, and right and left,
he forged a trail of death through the Trojan ranks,
until he saw Hector, noble Hector, and remembered Achilles' words.

Zeus above, high in the vault of heaven, eyes of Olympus,
your will determines all, even from way the heck up there.
And so you willed it that Patroclus, greathearted Patroclus,
extremely excitable Patroclus, should in his fury forsake
the warning from his special friend.

He threw his spear at Hector:
wide right. Another: wide left. And Hector saw him there,
saw Patroclus standing in Achilles' armor,
and therefore thought he was Achilles,
since he didn't know about the whole armor loan deal,
which could have made for a funny bunch of mix-ups
in another sort of story. But in this one, it was harsh:
Hector killed Patroclus. One spear, one corpse.
Bada bing. . .

From Dracula:

From the Diary of Jonathan Harker

I have made some interesting observations this week.

Early one morning, just before sunrise, I happened to have crept out of bed and tiptoed around the castle. I accidentally peeped through a chink in a wall and saw the Count handing over a bulky burlap sack to three extraordinarily beautiful women. Their beauty was spellbinding, and their immodest dress accentuated their wanton curves.

Whatever was inside the bag appeared to be wriggling, and emanated a muffled wailing sound like that of a newborn child. The women snatched the bag greedily, licking their lips lasciviously, then gleefully disappeared with it into thin air. It seemed an odd way to treat an infant. Perhaps they were Hungarian au pairs; I must be charitable enough to remember that not everyone has the advantage of English nannies.

Another night I arrived early for dinner and inadvertently peeped through yet another chink in yet another wall—shameful masonry, what?—and I beheld the Count himself laying out my meal. Three au pairs to care for a single infant, and a Count who sets his own table! Barbarians!

The Count never dines with me. Whenever I ask why he won't join me, he replies that he's already eaten. He's often got bits of blood around his mouth, so perhaps he's ashamed of his primitive eating habits. Furthermore, the Count seems to sleep all day and go about his business at night. I have tried to explain that when he moves to the new house in England, the purchase of which I am here to help him arrange, he may have to rearrange his schedule, as Englishmen are civilized and will not conduct respectable business after sundown.

The Count made me write several postdated letters addressed to Mina and the firm, explaining in the first that I was finally concluding my business here, in the second that I was in Budapest and on my way back home, and in the third that I had become sick in transit and would probably die. It was difficult writing them, for he forced me to use his pen, which was of course not a Fine English pen, but an inferior foreign product. . .

I've degraded myself enough for the time being. I now return you to your regularly scheduled Almanac.

(There are even more free samples on GregNagan.com.)

Degrees of Difference

Gabriel Fahrenheit was born on May 24, 1686. Mr Fahrenheit did pioneering work in the field of temperature. It was his dream to develop a more sophisticated temperature measurement system than the accepted worldwide standard of his era, which consisted of only seven gradations: brr!, cold, chilly, warm, hot, steamy, and ow!. Hard at work on the same problem was his colleague Gustav Celsius. Mr Fahrenheit eventually discovered the "degree." It took 32 of Mr Fahrenheit's degrees to freeze water and 212 of them to boil it. Mr Celsius, meanwhile, had discovered a different kind of "degree." It took only a hundred of his degrees to bring water to a boil, and, even more impressively, he discovered that water would freeze without any degrees at all.

By requiring fewer degrees to get things done, and less tick marks on thermometers, Mr Celsius's system was more compact and economical than Mr Fahrenheit's. This made it a natural for the crowded lands of Europe, where storage came at a premium. In the great unsettled expanse of the New World, however, space was not an issue and Mr Fahrenheit's system took hold.

If you haven't already downloaded it, my own Calcumalator (available on the index page of this site) makes conversions between these and other incompatible systems a breeze.

* * *

On May 24, 1819, Queen Victoria was born as Princess Alexandria Victoria at Kensington Palace, London. She reigned for sixty-four years, and lent her name to an era best remembered for its prudery and chastity. The chastity of the era was probably the result of so many citizens having to stay home and care for their children, since Victoria's reign also saw the largest population explosion in British history.

On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the world's first telegraph message to his associate. The message was "What hath God wrought?" Mr. Morse's associate didn't know, and did not advance to the next round, although he did receive a year's supply of Turtle Wax.

Today's birthdays include Gary Burghoff (1943), Bob Dylan (1941), and Jean Paul Marat (1743), as well as the eminent personages named above.

It's Victoria Day in Canada, Bermuda Day in Bermuda, Culture Day in Bulgaria, Independence Day in Eritrea, and Commonwealth Day in Trinidad & Tobago.

Happy Monday!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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