30 Beards Hath November

Beard Graphic

It’s happening all around us. Just a few short days ago, they had faces as smooth and creamy as young Percy Bysshe Shelley. But, now, as we make our way into No-Shave November, many men are earnestly supporting this annual cancer-awareness event by sprouting some whiskers of their own. In honor of No-Shave November, The Snail is offering a visual tour of some of the most famous beards in literary history. We’ll go around the world in 30 days—yes, a bristly Jules Verne will indeed make an appearance—and we’ll travel across centuries to witness the progression of a beard, from peach fuzz to full-out thickets. It’s a month’s worth of great authors and even greater beards. Make sure to check in periodically to see how hairy things get around here.


Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley starts off the month with a completely clean-cut canvas. But within a few short days, manly faces may be bearing traces of Joycean stubble or the 5 o’clock shadow worn so well by beatnik Jack Kerouac. Tune in next week to see where the whiskers might lead.

beard collage 1

30 Beards Hath November, Part III

Beard Graphic


It’s time to check in with our classic authors and see what the beards are looking like right now, at this point of No-Shave November. We’ve caught them at the perfect moment: that stubbly ideal known as the Scruffy Look. These handsome writers could just as easily be gracing the cover of GQ as appearing on the back of a book jacket. The amazing fact is that there’s a vast sea of time between them—four centuries to be exact. Apparently, the rugged look has been making a style statement much longer than we thought. Who knew it looked so dashing atop an Elizabethan ruff?


Beard Collage 3

Hard to Come Home: Thoughts for Veterans Day

close up of ancient metal helmet

As a subject of literature past and present, war ranks at the top of the list, right alongside love. From Shakespeare to Hemingway, authors can’t help but explore the inscrutabilities of war. And readers—especially those of us enjoying the privilege of not participating in combat—can’t help but study it. Through novels, poetry, and memoirs, we attempt to understand war, experience it, explore its irreconcilable conflicts and plumb its unfathomable depths.

Though the theater and battlefield may change over time, the human element of war remains the same. If a person manages to survive the contest, can they come home afterward?

Today, as Americans celebrate Veterans Day, we remember those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom. We also honor the men and women currently fighting here and abroad. And we thank those who have served and returned home. But is thanking them enough? Do we truly welcome them? Are we making efforts to ease their transition? Have we reached out to them and shown them compassion? Have we tried to understand?

Two different texts from very different points in time may help us understand: Sophocles’ Ajax, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. These two works aren’t about the glory of war, if that ever even exists. Instead, here we find veterans who are searching for stability, experiencing pain, dealing with tragedy.

I was inspired to pick up Sophocles’ play this week by a special minister in my life, who has also served as a longtime chaplain in the Army National Guard. He mentioned Sophocles at a Veterans Day program I attended, as he explained the challenges of coming home, a process that’s no easier for today’s veterans than it was for the classical warriors in ancient literature.

In Sophocles’ Ajax, the Greek conflict against the Trojans—mixed with some internal conflict amid his own side’s leadership—has driven the Greek warrior Ajax to madness. In the throes of war, he has committed some acts of near-unspeakable atrocity, and he’s now having to face the aftermath. Make no mistake, Ajax is no model of good behavior, having let his hubris get the better of him. He then becomes a pawn of the gods, who trick him into even more barbarous misdeeds. But no matter who he killed or why, the emotional upheaval he feels afterward is reminiscent of what many soldiers go through after battle. The courage and heroism Ajax once felt has been replaced by shame, regret, and an inability to move forward:

AJAX: What joy can be in day that follows day
           Bringing us close then snatching us from death?

In their all-seeing way, the Chorus puts a fine point on Ajax’s inner conflict: “Now amidst alien thoughts dwells he a stranger.” The Greek leader is now a stranger in his own land—and indeed his own mind—and he turns his sword against himself as a final solution.13325079

Though he seems about as distant from Ajax in time, place, and personality as a character could get, 19-year-old Billy Lynn experiences that same sense of alienation when he returns home to the United States from the Iraqi front lines. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Billy and the surviving members of his squad come home for a tour of duty that proves more difficult and more perplexing than their tour of duty in Iraq. A video of the squad’s face-to-face combat with Iraqi insurgents has turned them into overnight heroes, and they spend a few weeks at home while the U.S. government parades them around  as patriots. We follow part of the parade as Billy goes on a long journey (an odyssey of sorts, to put it in Greek terms) to the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys game, where his squad will share the spotlight with pop group Destiny’s Child.

Despite being at home surrounded by throngs of fellow citizens and supporters, Billy feels farther away than ever: “Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one to the other.” His knowledge and experience set him apart from his family and his country, in a way that can’t really be fixed. “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do,” thinks Billy, “does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?” Just as Ajax becomes a “stranger” to the people around him, Billy has to wonder if he is now some sort of “enemy” among the naive natives of his own homeland.

The question for us, as we witness these two soldiers at war with themselves, is how to treat veterans on Veterans Day. We tend to approach them like the eager, well-meaning Cowboys fans approach Billy: “Thank you! the nice people call after him. Thank you for your service!” It’s tempting to talk to vets like this, to gush and tell them how we feel about them. But maybe, just maybe, we should listen to how they feel. That might be the best way to honor them.

30 Beards Hath November, Part II

Beard Graphic


 How have those beards grown over the weekend? The second installment of our “Progression of a Beard” author series gives us a look at an American, a Frenchman, and a Scot—all with their own brand of budding facial hair. For Hughes, a mustache suffices, while Stevenson and Dumas sport the beginnings of a goatee. Would Dumas mind if we stole his title and called them the Three Mustachioed Musketeers?

 Beard Collage 2

10 Books That Will Transport You

Yesterday, a “Top Ten Tuesday” topic over at The Broke and the Bookish got me thinking about the power of geography in literature. Every good book transports its readers somewhere—to another time, place, or experience. But certain books leave a geographical impression that is likely to remain beyond the last page. If you’re in the mood for a short trip, without the security checks and jet lag, let one of these titles take you. These books—both fiction and non—will transport you somewhere you’ve probably never been and that you usually can’t go on your own. Come along.Vintage Travel Paper With Map and Compass




Henry VIII’s court—Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

If you can navigate the sometimes treacherous language and confusing dialogue of Mantel’s prize-winning novel, you’ll get to go where most average citizens are never allowed: behind the scenes of the Tudor court during the reign of Henry VIII. Chief minister Thomas Cromwell will be your guide, as you follow the king around trying to persuade him of one bit of reform or another. Ultimately, Cromwell provides an up-close look at the inside of the Tower of London, otherwise known as the royal prison.




Appalachian Trail—A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

So maybe you can hit the Appalachian Trail anytime you like, but you probably won’t pack the sharp wit or keen observation skills of humorist Bill Bryson. Join him on this journey, and I promise your own trek will be the richer for it—if you ever take it.




Turn of the 20th-century Dublin—Dubliners, by James Joyce

To really get acquainted with a place, you need to spend time with its people, right? That’s exactly what happens when you read the 15 stories of James Joyce’s classic collection. Ireland is a small country, and all of the Dubliners Joyce introduces us to are living small lives, doing everyday things. But each character is on the verge of something big, an epiphany that may change everything. This book gives you a tour not only of Dublin’s pubs, shops, and shores, but also the human heart.




Mid-century America—On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

You’ve never experienced a road trip until you’ve accompanied beatniks Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise on the original road trip. They will show you a wide swath of late-1940s America, from west to east and back west again. You might have to hitchhike part of the way, and you won’t always like your traveling companions, who often act moody, childish, and irresponsible. But you’ll see an awful lot of cool scenery on the way.




Pacific Theater of World War II—Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

I never said these destinations were going to be desirable. This nonfiction best-seller—soon to hit movie theaters—will give you the uncomfortable sensation of being circled by sharks while going without food and water for some 40 days. The next leg of the trip with hero Louis Zamperini heads to Japan, where he survives several POW camps and then explores the aftermath of the atomic bomb, before returning home to California.




New England and the High Seas—Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

The Pequod welcomes you aboard in 19th-century Nantucket, back when the island was home to whalers and not high-society vacationers. The moment you set sail, you’ll realize that Captain Ahab is holding you captive on his quest for revenge. It’s a long, long, long journey, but you won’t soon forget your whale-hunting expedition with Ishmael in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.




India upon the birth of its independence—Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

The story of Rushdie’s main character, Saleem, is a story of India. The two are so intertwined (Saleem having been born on the night that India achieved its independence) that, as we learn the personal past of Saleem and his family, we are also getting to know the national history of India. This magical narrative will walk you through births, deaths, battles, and love affairs. And it all ends in a pungent place you might not expect: a pickle factory.


Post–Civil War Spain—The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Readers are so taken with the setting of Zafón’s perennial book club favorite that an actual tour has been added to the back of recent editions. Now, if you go to Barcelona, you can retrace Daniel’s search for mysterious author Julián Carax through the back alleys of Barcelona. It’s a pity that, in real life, we can’t also visit that wonderful labyrinth that lives only in the pages of Zafón’s novel: the fantastic Cemetery of Forgotten Books.










The Judean Desert—Quarantine, by Jim Crace

If you’ve read your Bible but found it hard to imagine Jesus’s 40-day experience in the desert, here is a different sort of account to take you there. You’ll spend time cave-dwelling not only with Jesus—who is very human in Crace’s reinterpretation—but also with some other sojourners who are likewise seeking redemption in the wilderness.



The African Congo—Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

This book is for adventurous souls who don’t mind taking a mysterious journey down the Congo River, deep into the African jungle, to find a man about whom a lot is said but little is known. You’ll come face to face with the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of British imperialism at the turn of the 20th century. And you will, indeed, eventually meet the man called Kurtz, as you try to ascertain the real “heart of darkness.”